You are Teaching Your Child Language Skills Even When You are Not Aware of it
There are many amazing things about young children. For instance, they go from being a totally helpless infant at birth to a much more independent toddler. They progress from needing an adult to turn them over to becoming an active crawler in just a few short months. And, even more amazing, they start life with no language at all and by age two are talking.
How does that happen? How do children learn language and develop the ability to communicate verbally with others?
As it turns out, parents have a lot to do with this amazing and extraordinary accomplishment. Most of the time you are making significant contributions to your young child’s language development without even being aware what exactly you are doing that is helping him or her become a talker.
I was watching a baby at a nearby table in a restaurant recently. When this cute baby who was about six months of age started babbling, several adults who were close enough to hear her started talking to her by making babbling sounds in imitation of her. Her mother leaned closer to her and started telling her what a good talker she was and talked to her as if she could understand the little girl. None of the adults in this situation were responding to the girl in order to “teach” her to talk; they were simply compelled to respond. But they all did the right thing.
All babies – no matter what country or culture they are in – start babbling at about six months of age. And they all use the same cooing sounds and repeat the same consonant-vowel combinations. Most will babble such sounds as “bababa” or “mamama.” But for babbling to develop further, infants must hear human speech.
In other words, they have to be exposed to people who are talking. As babies hear others talk, they babble even more. Soon, some words or sounds that could be words begin to be uttered. And by 10 or 12 months, there are sounds appearing that can be distinguished as words. But in order to become a communicator, infants have to engage in other activities aside from hearing their parents or other people talk.
For one thing, early in that first year, usually by three or four months of age, babies are able to gaze in the same direction as adults are looking. By the end of the first year, they are more skilled at this. That’s when something called joint attention begins between parents and child.
Joint attention means that child and parent are paying attention to the same object or event. When mom or dad labels that event and talks about it, good things are happening for language development. For example, if the child is in a highchair at the table and a colorful cake is placed on the table (out of the child’s reach, it is hoped), both the child and parent will look at it. Dad might say, “That cake looks delicious!” Then turning to the child, dad says, “Pretty cake!” Without taking her eyes off the cake, the child might say “’ake.” To which dad might reply: “Pretty cake,” emphasizing the pronunciation of “cake.”
When young children take part in this joint attention experience, they are comprehending more language (in this example, the child hears the words “pretty” and “delicious”), they are learning and may be producing gestures (both Dad and child may point at the cake), and they will develop their vocabulary quicker.
By being aware of the importance of a simple concept like joint attention, you can help your child develop her language skills much quicker and more powerfully. It’s one thing to talk to your child, but it’s quite another to make sure there is joint attention and that what you are saying refers to what you are both watching.
Joint attention and the language that goes along with it can take place many times a day. What this does besides what I’ve just mentioned is to also establish a common ground between you and your child. You are sharing an experience. By looking at an object or event together and then by you talking about it, your child will be able to figure out the meaning of many of your words – even if you don’t stop to explain each one. This leads to a richer vocabulary and something else very important in your child’s development — an increased attention span.