How to Encourage Your Baby’s Language Development

In this episode: Janet offers feedback to a parent who’s having a disagreement with his spouse about how to respond to their 5-month-old’s babbling, which includes “high-pitched coos and zerberts and yelps.” Both parents want to encourage their daughter’s communication, and this dad exclaims, “We need a decider!”

Transcript of “How to Encourage Your Baby’s Language Development”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. This week, I’m responding to a Facebook message I received from a parent. He’s having a slight disagreement with his wife about the way they’re responding to their five-month-old’s sounds and chatty noises. He feels that they should both be communicating back with words, while she tends to reply to the baby in kind. This dad said he needs a decider.

Here’s the message I received on Facebook:

“Dear Janet, my wife and I are at odds over communicating with our five-month-old. The baby is very chatty with lots of high pitched coos, and zerberts, and yelps, and whatnot. I respond with words. ‘Oh my, that’s very loud. Are you trying to tell me something?’ Whereas my wife responds in kind. Yelp begets yelp. My feeling is that responding with words is better, whereas my wife thinks encouraging what the baby is doing is better. We need a decider. Thanks for your help. I’m looking forward to your next episode.”

Okay, so first of all, I love this question, because this is one of my favorite topics, learning, and in this case it’s learning language, learning to communicate. That’s what this little girl is doing and, wow, she’s quite communicative. It sounds like she’s expressing herself quite often with these coos, and babbles, and what he called “zerberts.” I love that. All of these sounds, these are precious, because this is her sharing her thoughts and feelings. This is communication. And studies show that babies are actually trying to say words. They’re not just saying “blah, blah, blah, blah.” When they babble they are talking, they are saying words that we don’t understand, but they are words.

In terms of the best way to respond, I think it helps to think about what we want to encourage.

Both of these parents are actually being quite encouraging. The mother is encouraging by imitating the sounds her child makes. I’m with you, I hear you, I’m connecting with you. So that’s positive.

And then what the father is doing is communicating back with the language that he uses, and that he wants his child to ultimately be able to express herself.

If I had to say which is more encouraging, I would say what he’s doing is probably more encouraging for language development. But that doesn’t mean what the mom is doing is negative or wrong, or that there’s anything unhelpful about it. Again, she’s communicating to her baby that she hears her, which is wonderful.

The difference in what Dad is doing is that he’s responding to his baby as more of a whole person. He’s understanding that she’s trying to communicate the words that she has heard, that she’s internalized since she was in the womb, that she comprehends to a great extent, especially if the parents have been talking to their baby respectfully from the beginning, telling her, “I’m going to pick you up now, and here’s the wet washcloth we’re going to put on your back. Oh, it’s a little bit cold. I’m going to warm it up a little more and then I’ll put it on your back again.”

If we engage with our baby as a person, with that respect, then their language comprehension is affected in a hugely positive direction, and then what this can feel like for a child is they understand these words, but they’re not quite able to say them yet. It’s akin to us learning a foreign language, and trying to speak in that language. If the loved one is mimicking back our struggles or our mispronunciations, it’s not going to feel as encouraging to us.

When we see that way, it makes sense that what this dad is doing is a little more respectful. He’s relating to her as a person trying to say words.

Again, I’m not at all negating the sweetness of what the mother’s doing, but I think if their ultimate goal is for her to be an adept communicator, and to feel heard, and understood as much as possible… We’re not always going to understand what children say, but the fact that we’re trying, like this dad says, “Are you trying to tell me something?” I would say things like, “I wish I could understand.”

And if we’re observing, if we’re practicing this kind of sensitive observation that Magda Gerber so highly recommended, and that we learned so much from, and has so many positive effects, then we can actually start to understand what children are saying. We’ll notice what they’re doing, what they were looking at, and we learn to see through their eyes. We can almost start to read their thoughts through sensitive observation of them playing. We’re not going to be able to sensitively observe our child all day long, of course, but having those play periods where the child’s play is self-directed and we are there responding, not trying to change the play or use it to teach something that we want to teach, but really noticing what our child is doing. Language is learned so effectively that way.

When a child is engaged in something like handling a ball, and then they dropped that ball, and they see the ball roll or spin, to say those words: “You were holding the ball and now it’s rolling away from you.” That has a lot of impact, because it’s meaningful to a child, just like the words that we use when we engage together. The wet washcloth, or, “Now we’re going to breastfeed and I’m opening my buttons, and I’m getting cozy in this chair with you.” Those are words that matter, and what all of this does is teaches language effectively in a totally organic manner.

We never have to teach a lesson in words. We never have to point and say, “This is the table and this is the chair.” It all comes through having this dialogue with our babies, understanding that they are people, and they’re comprehending so much more than they can articulate themselves. That’s where this dad’s responses are coming from. He obviously does see that way.

One of my all-time most popular posts is called “Ten Best Ways to Encourage Toddlers to Talk,” which you can find on my website, janetlansbury.com. I recommend reading that for anyone interested in hearing more about this topic and organic language learning.

I’ll just go over some of the points here that I make in that post.

Two-way communication from the beginning is #1. So understanding again that our infant is trying to communicate with us, and that they need us to open the door to the verbal communication that we want them to learn, telling them what’s going to happen next. It’s very respectful.

#2 is use your authentic voice and first person. That will help us to understand that we’re communicating with another person who’s very able to absorb our words. Definitely hears us, doesn’t need us to talk louder or be more exaggerated. Infants are more aware than we are as adults, so they don’t need a big performance. It can even be overstimulating for a child when we are being so over the top engaging.

#3 talk about real meaningful things. The ball rolling away, when it happens, the wet wash cloth, that they can experience with all their senses, those experiences with the language brought into them are what create profound understanding and learning.

Read books and tell stories responsively, so yes, there’s a lot of science on this. Stories, books, keep them at your child’s pace so that it’s not about us with an agenda, it’s about us being responsive. “Oh, you’re pointing at the dog there. You always point at that picture. I think you like it a lot.” And we let our child stay on a page longer. We take our cues from them as to what they’re interested in.

Slow down. This is one that I forget personally all the time with the babies that I work with. Slowing down our words helps, because children are taking a little longer for the coin to drop, just as we would with a new language that we’re learning. If somebody is saying these quick sentences, we aren’t going to be able to comprehend the words.

Relax and be patient. Don’t try to push this process.

#7 don’t test. It can be discouraging for babies when they have to perform for us with language, rather than just engaging naturally. This isn’t going to damage a child (let’s keep it in perspective), but it’s not as encouraging to say, “Okay, show me your this. Where’s your head? Where’s your nose? Can you say ___?” It puts us in more of a kind of an old-fashioned teaching role that is different and not as effective as teaching language organically through our relationship and life, and the things that come up for that child, that our child wants to know about, or wants to practice.

Children are expert learners, and we needn’t feel like it’s our responsibility to teach language. Again, that’s the freedom of this. That’s what I love about Magda Gerber’s approach. I was so drawn to that, taking that pressure off us to try to teach language lessons, when our life together with our baby is full of language lessons naturally.

Then #8 on my recommendations is babbling is talking. That’s what’s going on here with this dad. He’s understanding that she is talking, she is trying to say something, and children, again, don’t need us to always get it right but they love knowing that we’re trying, that we’re interested, that we want to get it right when we can.

Then I say, beware of these common language discouragers. I actually think the testing is the language discourager. Also correcting, correcting little words here and there. It’s not necessary. Over-correcting. John Holt has a great perspective and I quote him in my article:

“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.”

That’s John Holt, a wonderful advocate for respect for children.

#10, I don’t recommend invalidating thoughts and feelings. A child is expressing something. Let’s say Mommy’s with the child and Daddy’s away, and our child says, “Daddy.” As parents we can tend to jump to, uh-oh, there’s a problem, instead of just hearing what our child is saying, just what we know, which is, my child said Daddy. Instead of like, “Oh no, no, Daddy’s not here,” we dial it back for ourselves and say something like, “It sounds like you’re thinking about Daddy, or are you bringing up Daddy?” Dialing it back and not going with that impulse to correct, or fix, or avert something that we might feel uncomfortable about, that our child wants Daddy and Daddy’s not here, or that our child wants ice cream and we’re not going to give them ice cream. Just taking what we have and encouraging them to express that. Then we might say, “Oh, are you saying you want to see Daddy right now?” If we’re getting a response to that that seems like our child is saying yes, then we might say, “Daddy’s not here right now. He will be home at dinnertime.”

So just going back to this dad again, he says, “My feeling is that responding with words is better. Whereas my wife thinks encouraging what the baby is doing is better.” I think what they’re both doing is wonderful. They’re both encouraging what the baby is doing, but I think the dad is encouraging it a little more. He’s actually seeing more clearly what the baby is doing. He’s seeing that these are actual words and sentences that his daughter is trying to express.

I hope some of that helps.

Also, please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and categories, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in, and both of my books are available on audio: Elevating Child Care, and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline About Shame.  You can get them for free from Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast, or you can go to the books section of my website. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and in Ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and apple.com.

Thank you for listening. We can do this.

1 Comment

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. avatar Allis Deppeler says:

    I am disappointed that this ‘question’ was published. I’m glad he can tell his wife that she was wrong and he was right. I like the rest of the content, I think it’s a great point about not testing. I would also add my sweet babe loves it when I repeat the sounds he makes back to him, his face lights up – probably the same way mine does when he says a word or animal noise to me.

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