New science and tips on children’s language acquisition.
A nine-month old child is typically developing if he can speak even one word. With the benefit of proper scaffolding, he’ll know fifty to one hundred words within just a few months. By two, he will speak around 320 words; a couple months later – over 570. Then the floodgates open. By three, he’ll likely be speaking in full sentences. By the time he’s off to kindergarten, he may easily have a vocabulary of over 10,000 words.
For years, experts have said that the key to jump-starting that development was exposure to tons of language. But the most important lesson from the newest science is this: the central role of the parent is not to push massive amounts of language into the baby’s ears. Rather, the central role of the parent is to notice what’s coming from the baby, and to respond accordingly.
With that in mind, here are just a few of the hottest tips from scientists who study how babies learn language. Throw out your Baby DVDs and your verbal pedometers, don’t obsess about baby sign, and get informed.
1. Let the Baby Drive the Conversation
Language learning begins before infants produce a syllable or understand a single word. At this point, it’s about learning that there is this magical thing called communication. If the baby coos, and the daddy responds, “Is that so?” then the baby will babble again. So the daddy returns, “Well, we’ll have to ask Mom.”
Through this call-and-response pattern, the baby’s brain learns that the sounds coming out of his mouth affect his parents and get their attention – that voicing is important, not meaningless.
Most parents intuit this turn-taking spontaneously – but they don’t all do it equally well. A remarkable study found when four-month-old infants and parents had better verbal turn-taking, that predicted greater cognitive ability when the children were two years old.
2. Recognize the Stages of Babble
No less than eighty muscles control the vocal tract, and it can take a year or more to gain control of. So while babble might sound like gibberish, it’s actually a progression of overlapping stages, as the child learns to master sound production and muscle control.
From birth, children make quasi-resonant vowel sounds. They use the back of the vocal tract with a closed throat and little breath support. At this point, kids may sound like they are fussing when they aren’t; they could just be experimenting with their throat muscles.
Around five months, a baby has enough control to open her throat and push breath through to occasionally produce fully resonant vowels. Soon the baby is adding marginal syllables, consonant-vowel transitions. Rather than “goo” and “coo,” more like “ba” and “da,” using the articulators in the front of the mouth. This is why so many of a baby’s first words start with “b” and “d”: they’re the first proper consonants the muscles can make. However, since the baby still can’t get his tongue, teeth and upper cleft out of the way fast enough, the vowel sounds are distorted.
As early as six months, but typically around nine months, infants start producing some canonical syllables, the basic sound-units of adult speech. The consonant-vowel transition is fast, and the breath is quick. The child is almost ready to combine syllables into words.
3. High-Response Rate to Mature Babble
New York University’s Dr. Catherine Tamis LeMonda found that when mothers respond more frequently to their babies, the children acquire language much more quickly. During the peak hour of the day, a high-responding mom might respond to over 80% of the baby’s vocalizations – up to 200 times per hour – while low-responding moms respond about half the time.
In studies, toddlers of high-responders are a whopping six months ahead of the toddlers of low-responders. They said their first word at ten months and, by fourteen months, had fifty words in their spoken vocabulary.
But the trick is not to overdo it: don’t respond to every babble. As the baby progresses through the various babble stages, the focus should be on affirming the baby’s more mature vocalizations, gradually responding less to immature sounds. In that way, the baby learns which sounds were more effective, and thus the ones he should keep making.
4. Baby Talk May Sound Silly But It’s Really Good For Babies
Baby Talk: We’ve all done it – that oddly sing-song, slow, giddy cadence that people suddenly use when speaking to children. There’s actually a lot of research on baby talk – the scientific expression for it is parentese. Its patterns and cadence are so universal, that scholars can play a recording of someone speaking in a language you’ve never heard before, and you’ll still know if the person was talking to a baby.
Babies learn language by lip-reading. Some parents are adamant against baby talk; instead, they want kids to hear adults speak normally. But that’s the wrong approach. Parentese’s exaggerated qualities help children’s brains discern discrete sounds. By elongating vowels and stressing transitions more clearly, parentese helps a baby brain’s auditory cortex recognize vowel-consonants groupings. And some use of it helps until a child’s second birthday.
5. Show Them Your Lips
Perhaps it’s an excuse to buy a fab new red lipstick, but babies learn language by lip-reading.
Before they comprehend any words, they first have to discern when one word ends and other begins. This is called segmentation, and babies learn this partly by watching how people move their lips and mouths to produce sounds. At 7.5 months, babies can segment the speech of people – but only if they see the mouth of the person who’s speaking. (Even for adults, seeing someone’s lips as she speaks is the equivalent of a twenty decibel increase in volume.)
This is one main reason baby DVDs don’t work – because they don’t show the face of a person as she is speaking. Instead, there’s an audio, and then an unrelated image. The sensory inputs don’t build on each other: they compete.
6. Proper object labeling
One of the ways parents help infants is by doing what’s called “object labeling” – telling them, “That’s your stroller,” “See the flower?,” and “Look at the moon.” Babies learn better from object labeling when the parent waits for a baby to naturally be gazing, pointing or vocalizing about the object. Ideally, the parent isn’t intruding or directing the child’s attention. Instead, he’s following the child’s lead.
But timing is everything: the word has to be heard just as an infant is looking or grabbing after it to make sure that the child connects the word to the right object.
7. Beware criss-cross labeling.
The danger in overzealous object labeling is that you might inadvertently crisscross the baby: that is, don’t put words in his mouth that aren’t really there.
While proper object labeling can accelerate word learning, frequently crisscrossed labeling can slow it to a near halt. Say a baby, holding a spoon, says “buh, buh.” But a mother doesn’t respond to the child’s focus of attention; instead, she responds to the baby’s “buh” sound with a “Bottle? You want your bottle?” Inadvertently, she just crisscrossed the baby: she taught him that a spoon is called “bottle.” While proper object labeling can accelerate word learning, frequently crisscrossed labeling can slow it to a near halt.
8. Use Motionese
When adults talk to young children about small objects, they frequently twist the object, or shake it, or move it around – usually synchronized to the sing-song of parentese. This “motionese” is very helpful in teaching the name of the object. Moving the object helps attract the infant’s attention, turning the moment into a multi-sensory experience.
But the window to use motionese closes at fifteen months: by that age, children no longer benefit from the extra motion.
9. Expose Your Child to Multiple Speakers
University of Iowa researchers recently discovered that fourteen-month old children failed to learn a novel word if they heard it spoken by a single person, even if the word was repeated many times. The fact that there was a word they were supposed to be learning just didn’t seem to register. Then, instead of having the children listen to the same person speaking many times, they had kids listen to the one word spoken by a variety of different people. The kids immediately learned the word.
Hearing multiple speakers gave the children the opportunity to hear how the phonics were the same, even if the voices varied in pitch and speed. By hearing in the speech what was different, they learned what was the same.
10. Use Frames To Teach New Words
You might think kids need to acquire a certain number of words in their vocabulary before they learn grammar – but it’s the exact opposite. Grammar teaches vocabulary.
A typical two-year old hears roughly 7,000 utterances a day. But 45% of utterances begin with one of these seventeen words: what, that, it, you, are/aren’t, I, do/don’t, is, a, would, can/can’t, where, there, who, come, look, and let’s. Throw in some two and three word combinations, known as frames, and scholars can account for two-thirds of what a toddler hears in a given day.
Without frames, a kid is just existing within a real-life version of Mad Libs. These word frames are vital frames of reference. When a child hears, “Look at the ___,” he quickly learns that ___ is a new thing to see. Whatever comes after “Don’t” is something he should stop doing – even if he doesn’t yet know the words “touch” or “light socket.”
Without frames, a kid is just existing within a real-life version of Mad Libs – trying to plug the few words he recognizes into a context where they may or may not belong.
11. Variation Sets
The cousin to frames are “variation sets.” In a variation set, the context and meaning of the sentence remain constant over the course of a series of sentences, but the vocabulary and grammatical structure changes. For instance, a variation set would thus be: “Rachel, bring the book to Daddy. Bring him the book. Give it to Daddy. Thank you, Rachel – you gave Daddy the book.”
In this way, Rachel learns that a “book” is also an “it,” and that another word for Daddy is “him.” That “bring” and “give” both involve moving an object. She heard the past tense of “give,” that it’s possible to switch nouns from being subjects to direct objects (and vice versa), and that verbs can be used as an instruction to act (Give it) or description of action taken (She gives).
Variation helps, if it’s used about 50% of the time. More than that, the sentences become too varied: the kids lose the connection between the sentences.