Dorthy P. Dougherty
Shortly after birth, a baby's brain begins to undergo
magnificent changes. It doubles in weight and uses twice as much energy as
an adult brain, as trillions of pathways develop between cells. These pathways
will enable the baby to learn, think— and eventually talk—and what
a child sees, hears, touches, and feels during the early years of ‘life
strengthens and shapes these brain pathways.
Think of your child s brain as a forest with many trails through the
thick brush. Like trails in the forest that are frequently traveled, the
pathways in the brain that are strengthened by a lot of stimulation from
the outside world are ready for passage and remain active forever. The pathways
that are not strengthened become overgrown and lost. Keeping those trails
open so your toddler's first words can come tumbling through is an important
part of your job as a parent. Luckily, daily life provides hundreds of
opportunities to enhance your child s language skills.
Talk, talk, talk
Children listen to learn. The more they hear, the greater their vocabulary
and the greater their IQ. One Chicago researcher found that 2-year-old children
of talkative mothers said twice as many words as the children of mothers
who cared for their babies silently. However, only "live" language, not
television, helps children develop language skills. Experts believe this
is because children need to hear language in relation to what is happening
around them, or it just becomes noise.
Even though your child may be surrounded by conversation from birth,
it is important that you talk directly to him long before he can talk back
to you. Before a child says her first word, she must hear that word many
times and understand its meaning. The natural way for your baby to learn
the meanings of words is for him to listen to you talk in relation to the
events going on around you, and learn to associate the words you say with
the actions, objects or thoughts you describe.
Point things out
Talking should be a part of everything you and your child do together.
Talk about what you are seeing, doing, feeling, and touching as you cook
dinner, vacuum the carpet, or sort and~fold laundry. Describe your actions
as you make the bed, set the table or pour your child a drink. As you dress
your child, name his body parts, talk about kinds of clothes and where they
go ("Shoes go on your feet. Shirts go over your head.").
Take your child to the supermarket, post office or on other errands
around town, and engage his attention with the sound of your voice. In the
supermarket produce section, you can find every color, texture and shape
to describe to your child. As you fill your cart with food, you can fill
your child s mind with hundreds of words and phrases.
Tune into your child
Researchers believe it is important not to push your child, but rather
to follow his lead. Keep talking and playing with your child as long as he
listens. A baby will smile and tell you with his eye contact that he is engaged
in the activity. As your child begins to communicate with you, focus on words
and objects that are central to his life or on which he is focusing at the
moment. If he is pointing to a squirrel running up a tree, don t start talking
about the dog across the street. Talk about the squirrel: ‘it s a squirrel.
Look at his bushy tail. He is going up the tree."
Be a good listener
Almost from the day he is born, your baby can express himself with sounds
and facial expressions. When he coos or babbles, just be quiet and listen.
Stop what you are doing, stand close to your child and bend down to his eye
level. Then respond. Repeat what he says or use words to tell him you approve
of his talking and understand his message..Being a good listener teaches
your child a fundamental part of all communication—taking turns.
Help your child develop listening
Children must listen to learn and learn. Hearing the difference between
sounds is a link to reading. Give your child experience listening to many
different sounds by commenting on the sound around you. "Listen to the clock
tick .""Do you hear the airplane?" Talk about the sounds your child makes
when she splashes in the tub, claps her hands or stamps her feet.
Be a good model
Experts believe that you should not use or encourage "baby talk." Speak clearly,
naturally and most important of all—correctly. Before your child s peaks,
he will listen to everything you say and how you say it. When he starts to
talk, he will imitate the word patterns he has been hearing.
Know what to expect from your child
Just as children mature physically at different rates, they develop
language at different rates. especially during the second year of life. Both
expecting too much and expecting too little can be harmful. It is important
to know child is developing and progressing in all areas at an acceptable
rate. If you have questions concerns about your child's language development,
consult your pediatrician or a speech/pathologist.
Dorothy P Dougherty, MA, CCC-SP is the mother of two and
a speech/language specialist. She is also the author of How to Talk to Your
Baby: A Guide to Maximizing Your Child's Language and Learning Skills
(Penguin Putnam , 1999).