Every time you tell your baby you love her - -
You’re teaching her to talk!
By: Lawsrence Kutner, Ph.D.
BABYTALK, May 2000, pg. 44
I w as thrilled the first time my younger son, then a year old, pointed at his mother and said, “Mama.” (I was less enthusiastic a few days later when he said “Dada” while pointing at our cat.) Like all children, he had begun learning language well before he said his first real words. And like all parents, I was proud of myself for having helped him achieve this important milestone.
We can’t help but urge even the youngest infants to communicate with us by using language. We act as if we’re trying to have a conversation with someone who speaks a foreign language: We simplify our grammar, repeat key phrases, use hand gestures, and look for signs that what we’ve said is understood. Although we don’t expect a baby to reply just yet, we hope that our efforts are helping him learn to speak. Some experts believe that “baby talk” or “motherese”—the way we talk when faced with a grinning, gurgling infant—is much more than cute or simple speech. In fact, it’s a pattern used in languages worldwide because babies will respond to it and are thought to be able to learn from it more easily than from “adult” speech.
For example, when we talk to a baby, we tend to raise the pitch of our voice, per-haps because we think it will get the child’s attention. And rightly so: Research has shown that babies are more attracted to a higher-pitched voice. Repeating a child’s name, also part of “motherese,” helps her understand that you’re talking to her and about her. And slowing down our talking speed, repeating ourselves, naming common objects, and taking both sides of a conversation likely make it easier for children to put together the puzzle of language.
Babies also respond to the music of our voice—the rhythms, pauses, and inflections we use when we speak. That’s one reason they’re fascinated when we sing to them and why we use lullabies to help calm them down. The words are largely irrelevant in lullabies (in fact, some are downright scary: ‘When the bough breaks the cradle will fall. And down will comes baby, cradle and all!”)—it’s the soft, soothing sound of our singing voice that calms the child. And by repeating songs, we allow our babies the joy and comfort of successfully predicting which tones and sounds will come next . Most poetry, with its tight structure, does much the same thing, which is why infants and toddlers love nursery rhymes. It’s a little more difficult to understand the reasoning behind those adorable special words we use when we talk to infants. They sound simple enough: Dogs and cats become “puppies” and “kitties”; trains become “choo-choos.” Yet these and other “baby” words are actually more complex than the ones we use with adults. Why is that?
One compelling idea is that we make the switch not just for the child’s sake, but for ours as well. It’s a way of acknowledge the special relationship we have with bahies and reminds us that we have to behave differently with them than we do with older children. It forces us to pay more attention to the baby, and to hlock out the distractions around us. By changing our style of speech, we are subtly remind-ing ourselves that what we say is pretty irrelevant. The truly important parent-child communication at this stage comes from the love and extra attention we given to our little one.
Three or tour months after they are born, children begin to explore making sounds with their mouths. Most of these noises are random, although some of the simpler ones such as “rnuh,” are heard more frequently, which may be why variations on “mama” appear in many languages as child’s word for “mother.” As adults we process these sounds as it they were part of our own language. For example, a mother who hears “muh” from a baby is like to think “She knows who I am.” A father, hearing the same sound, might interpret it as, “She’s asking for milk.” Either or neither may be the case, but it doesn’t really matter. As long as you response to the noises your child makes, you’ll be playing a tremendous role in helping her learn to speak
Let’s say you’ve just walked into your baby’s room. She makes a sound—any sound. “ You respond, “Hi there! Are you talking to me? You’re such a very beautiful girl.” Your baby knows a good thing when she hears it. By making sounds, she’s able to get extra attention from you. After this happens a few times, she’ll start cooing and making other sounds when you’re around.---her first real attempt at oral communications Most children begin imitating simple sounds a little before they’re 7 months old. Because talking takes a lot ot coordination, children’s speech usually progresses alongside their fine motor sl\ills. So a baby may start making the repetitive sound “ba-ha-ha” at about the same time that she can make rhythmic, repetitive motions with her hands, like banging on a pot as if it’s a drum. If you don’t see your child’s speech keeping up with her motor skills, it’s a good idea to have her hearing checked by your pediatrician, who may also refer you to a children’s hearing specialist. Making a loud noise to check your baby’s reaction is not a sufficient test. Infants who have a partial hearing loss, or who have chronic middle-ear infections, may be startled by a loud crash or a clap, but may still have difficulty discerning the subtle differences between spoken words.
By about 10 to 12 months, you’ll probably hear your baby say her first words. They may not be the same ones you use, but don’t worry that she’s following her own dictionary. For example, she might say “muck” when she’s hungry. But the word she says isn’t as important as whether she uses that word consistently when she wants food. The kep is to respond to her request and feed her, which will encourage her to keep talking. And it you use the word “milk” when you’re feeding her, she’ll get the idea and eventually change her pronunciation.
So what’s the bottom line? Talk to your baby. Read to your baby. Sing to your baby. (She’ll be the best audience a singer could ask tor, since she won’t care ii you’re off -key or you forget tie words.) Most of all, respond to your baby every stcp of the way, and share in her joy as she discovers the world of language.
Contributing Editor, Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D.,
the author of five books on child development
and parent-child communications, is the father of
a 10-year-old son and a 22-year -old foster son.
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