Between the magic of a child’s first words—received by a parent’s enraptured attention—and the time when the child grows, real communication sometimes gets lost. It is not uncommon for frustrated parents to feel like their toddler or preschool has selective hearing and isn’t listening to a word they say.
What happened between that moment of non-communication, and that miraculous moment of birth, not so long ago (when a mother crooned to her newborn baby, talking softly, communicating in the oldest manner known to mankind)? How does communication happen? How do speaking and listening develop, and is there anything we can do to improve communication skills and get the baby talking within our homes?
Babies Are Great Listeners
The old adage that babies are born with a clean slate, just waiting to be filled in by environmental stimuli, has been proved wrong time and time again. Infant language researchers believe that babies are born with a genetic aptitude for language. Studies have shown that mere hours after birth, a newborn can distinguish his mother’s voice from that of another woman. At around four months of age, a baby smiles and recognizes his name. Babies only eight to nine months old can remember words from a story or a simple piece of music they have heard previously. By the time they say their first words around one year of age, children can understand hundreds more words; and once the language spigot is opened, the flow continues.
Yet, communication takes place long before a child speaks his first word. Mothers have learned to distinguish a “hunger” cry from an “I’m lonely, please pick me up” wail. A baby responds to his mother’s voice with eye contact, coos, and gurgles, waving arms and legs, subtle body language, then not-so-subtle smiles and cries. A scolding or encouraging tone has come to mean everything, even before the words make sense.
How Do Babies Hear the World?
Unlike the adult brain, which can filter through sounds to focus on those we want to hear, babies listen to all sound frequencies simultaneously.
“Babies have a different way of listening to the world,” says Dr. Lynne Werner, PhD, a University of Washington professor of speech and hearing science. “Adults usually hear in a narrow band of sound, while babies seem to use a different approach. They don’t have the selective attention of adults and they don’t pay attention all the time. Instead, they always seem to be listening broadband or to all frequencies simultaneously.”
This means that babies respond to unexpected sounds, often startling violently at sudden noises. It also makes the noise level that our society is accustomed to difficult for babies. Says Dr. Werner, “If you are talking to a baby or reading her a story, background noise can be a problem. Turn off the television or radio.”
From Listening to Speaking: The Missing Link
At around 18 months of age, a child’s vocabulary and grasp of language suddenly expands, and scientists don’t know why, states the Johns Hopkins University’s publication, The Science Daily News Release, “One possible explanation is that children may begin storing the sounds and meanings of words while they are infants, and suddenly they are able to connect the words with meanings.” This theory explains the speaking process as being similar to separate pieces of a jigsaw puzzle suddenly fitting together.
Experimental psychologists at Johns Hopkins found that eight-month-old babies recognized relatively complex words, even when they’d only heard those words in tape-recorded stories.
According to Dr. Peter Jusczyk, PhD, a professor in the Department of Psychology at Johns Hopkins University, infants have a keen memory for learning words. “What we found was that the babies listened longer to the lists of words from stories (that they’d heard previously); significantly longer,” Dr. Jusczyk reports.
Another study conducted on babies less than one week old by 11 Finnish scientists and Dr. Amir Raz, a fellow of psychology and psychiatry at the Sackler Institute for Development Psychobiology of Weill Cornell Medical College, led to more interesting results. They found that, unlike the anecdotal study-while-you-sleep approach for adults, newborn babies can and do learn to distinguish speech sounds while asleep, though it remains to be seen up to what age children retain this ability to learn while asleep.
The question this raises for us as parents is: If these conclusions were drawn using controlled, testing environments, how much more likely is a baby to learn and flourish when actually held and cuddled in a parent’s arms while turning the pages of a book? Or while perching on a mother’s shoulder watching her work close-up? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to conclude that the more words an infant is exposed to throughout babyhood, the more words she’s likely to retain and, consequently, the earlier she’s likely to speak?
How to Help Your Baby Talk
Though babies have this marvelous, innate ability to learn and absorb, there are things parents can do to help their children develop speech skills.
Quiet, face-to-face conversations cut out distractions and show Baby that she has your full attention. Small talk is great for building up vocabulary. Basic vocabulary words can be built on, using simple adjectives and adverbs to help them grasp important concepts (hot, cold, fast, slow, in, out, etc.). If you’re cooking in the kitchen, describe everything you’re doing. “I’m heating milk. I’m heating it slowly. The milk is hot.” Carry your baby in a back-pack so she can watch your actions as you wash, chop, and touch the different ingredients. Stimulate her senses, naming the objects you’re using and their colors, their textures, the sounds and smells in your environment, especially when your baby becomes old enough to point to them. Point things out as you drive or in the grocery store. Your baby will learn most of his language from you.
When Baby Starts to Talk
- Encourage your baby’s attempts, never making fun of a word said incorrectly as this can put him off from trying again. Instead, repeat the word in a matter-of-fact, non-judgmental way, this time saying it correctly.
- Read and sing together to improve words, language, and listening skills—and enjoy the special cuddling time this brings.
- Praise language achievement; even if your baby doesn’t understand the actual words you’re using, he’ll respond to your tone of voice.
- Act as interpreter between your child and others whenever it is clear that you are needed for meaning to come across, otherwise let your child try for her own conversations.
- Avoid baby talk! Though it’s cute when babies say “ga-ga-goo,” it confuses them and may inhibit learning when adults use similar language. Helping kids master their mother tongue is particularly important if your family lives in a foreign country and their only exposure to English (or native language) takes place at home. Don’t allow older kids to use “baby talk” with younger siblings in this case, because if your family doesn’t use correct English at home, your children won’t pick it up elsewhere.
- And finally, keep it simple. Arlene Eisenberg, Heidi E. Murkoff, and Sandee E. Hathaway, BSN, in their book What to Expect the Toddler Years remind us, “Can you understand a movie spoken in French with just a year of highschool French under your belt? Remember, your toddler has had only one year of English.”
Audible, distinct, clear speech will make it easier for your toddler to pick up the language and eventually find her way through the oceans of words she’s swimming in.