First, let’s clarify something that will hopefully bring relief: Encouraging our children to talk isn’t about chattering incessantly to them in order to expose them to as many words as possible (30,000 by 3 years old is the magic number, according to some experts).
If you hear this advice, don’t listen, because your babies won’t either. Honestly, can you think of anything more off-putting than someone blabbering for the sake of blabbering? Even our adoring babies, the captive audiences they are, will tune out (because they’re unable to throw something or ask you to stop).
On the other hand, it’s true that encouraging language development is about the quality and quantity of the words we speak. The great news is that both come naturally when we perceive babies as whole people — able communicators ready to be informed about the happenings in their lives, and in turn share their thoughts and feelings. Comprehend this simple truth, interact naturally, and we’ve got the language lessons nailed.
Here are some specifics…
1. Two-way communication from the beginning.
From the time our babies are born, they need to know that we not only tell them what’s happening (“I’m going to pick you up now”), but also that we pay attention to their non-verbal signals and listen to their sounds and cries. If we’re unsure, we wait before reacting. We ask, give the child time to take our question in, and listen again. We make every attempt to understand what our babies might be communicating. We won’t always be successful in the beginning, but we’ll improve with each try. Meanwhile our children hear our profoundly important message: “We want you to tell us what you need and feel. We believe you are capable of communicating with us, and we will do our best to understand you.”
This is vital. Only we can open this door and wholeheartedly welcome our baby’s communication.
2. Use your authentic voice and first person.
Many believe in using mother-ese, so I realize this is controversial, but here’s what I’ve found… Talking to our babies in our regular, authentic voice (but a little slower) reminds us that we are talking to a whole person. It’s easier and not as likely to induce headaches (which I know, because I talk to my dog in mother-ese). It models for babies the natural tone and language we want them to adopt. The more they hear language spoken properly, the sooner they will learn and try speaking it.
Children sense inauthenticity a mile away. The children I know who aren’t used to being talked to in mother-ese feel disrespected and talked down to when adults speak to them that way.
Using first person rather than “Mommy loves Johnny” is a minor detail, but it is another way to remind ourselves to talk person-to-person with our baby. Why speak differently to a baby or toddler who is immersed in the process of learning our language than we would to an older child or adult? This makes no sense to me. Never doubt for a moment that babies know who Mommy, Daddy and Johnny are. They don’t need the constant reminders. Also, children understand and use pronouns earlier when they are modeled.
3. Talk about real, meaningful things.
In other words, instead of teaching words, use them. Holding up a ball, pointing to it and saying “ball” is far less effective teaching (besides being a gargantuan bore, as far as I’m concerned) than commenting in context on a relevant (and, therefore, meaningful) event. “You moved all the way to that red ball and touched it and then it rolled further away.”
Babies learn best , as we all do, when they care, and in this example the baby would probably care about his involvement with the words ‘moved’, ‘red ball’, ‘touched’, ‘rolled’ and ‘away’. That’s six words right there, but who’s counting? (Oh, the experts…that’s right.)
Note: I’m not suggesting constant narration while babies play. The best way to gauge whether or not to comment while our child is engaged in an activity is to wait for him or her to communicate an interest in our response, which young children usually do by looking at us. (For a brief video demonstration of this, please see “Teaching Babies Language And Much, Much More While They Play“)
4. Read books and tell stories responsively
Reading books responsively means ditching any agenda and following our child’s interest. Let the baby or toddler stay on one page for five minutes if she wants to and talk to her about everything you see there. Let her skip pages, look at the book upside down, and not finish the story (or even look at the book at all) if that’s what she chooses. Trust your child’s readiness, allow reading to be child-led, and we encourage a love of books. And children who love books love and use language.
If you’re the creative type (which I’m usually not at the end of the day), tell stories. I’ll never forget the stories my dad told about Mary and her dog Zip. Well, actually I don’t remember anything about them except that I thoroughly enjoyed that attention from my dad.
5. Slow down
I forget this all the time. We should probably put “Slow Down” signs all over the house when our children are small. There are so many good reasons to slow down around children, especially in regard to language. When we slow down, children can listen and understand.
6. Relax and be patient
Parent worries are usually felt by young children and don’t create the ideal climate for taking big developmental strides forward. Talking takes courage. Relax, be patient and trust your child’s inborn timetable. Many patient parents I know have experienced their child’s verbal skills emerge overnight – a language “explosion”.
If your child seems delayed in his or her ability to comprehend language, or seems atypical in several areas of development, get an assessment.
7. Don’t test
What children need most of all to be able to start talking (or do just about anything else) is our trust. When we test, we aren’t trusting or respecting. Magda Gerber’s rule of thumb was, “Don’t ask children a question you know the answer to.” (In other words, “Where is your nose?”)
As excited as we get about sharing the adorable way our toddler pronounces his latest words (“Say ‘turtle’ for Grandma, Johnny!”), performance pressure makes toddlers more likely to clam up.
8. Babbling is talking
When babies or toddlers seem to be talking gibberish, they are usually saying words, so ignoring them or babbling back isn’t as respectful or encouraging as saying, “You’re telling me something. Are you telling me about the cat that just walked by?” Or, “You’ve got a lot to say today. “
Beware of these common language discouragers
When children are trying out language, they are inclined to get colors, animals, and other things “wrong”, and adults are inclined to correct these mistakes. Don’t. It’s unnecessary and discouraging. With our patience and modeling, toddlers will discern the difference between dogs and bears, red and orange, etc., soon enough.
In Learning All The Time, John Holt explains: “When children first learn to talk, they will often use the name of one object to refer to a whole class of similar objects.” In other words, when a toddler refers to every animal as a “dog”, she isn’t indicating that she doesn’t know the difference.
“If a distinguished person from a foreign country were visiting you, you would not correct every mistake he made in English, however much he might want to learn the language, because it would be rude. We do not think of rudeness or courtesy as being applicable to our dealings with very little children. But they are.” –John Holt
10. Invalidating thoughts and feelings
Let’s say your toddler asks (in her unique way) to change her diaper, but you check and she isn’t wet. Or maybe your boy says “lellon”, and you know he loves melon, but he just ate. Rather than reflexively responding “you don’t need your diaper changed” or “you can’t be hungry, you just ate”, accept and acknowledge the communication without the slightest bit of judgment. “Oh, are you saying you want to change your diaper?” (Wait for a response.) “Yes? Well, I can certainly understand wanting to do that again. It’s fun to spend that time together. But you are dry and so we won’t be changing you right now. Maybe in a few minutes.”
“Are you thinking about melon?” (Wait for a response.) “Are you hungry for melon? (Wait.) Oh, you’re not hungry? Are you enjoying saying “melon”? That’s a fun word to say, isn’t it?”
When we listen to and respect these early attempts at communication, children feel encouraged to keep talking. They’ll sense that their most random thoughts, feelings and ideas are welcome to our ears. And chances are excellent we’ll be their favorite confidant for many years to come.
(Note: if you have concerns about your child’s language development, the American Academy of Pediatrics offers helpful guidelines HERE)
I share more about respectful care and natural development in my book:
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available in Spanish!)
(Photo by Diego Dalmaso on Flickr)