As parents, we eagerly await our child’s first words. My father lobbied extensively for “Grandpa” and was devastated when “puppy” won out. But language expression is not a competition. It’s how we begin to know our child’s thoughts and dreams. We use language to make sense of and interact with our world. But your child begins to understand language long before the first fully formed word leaves his lips. In fact, your baby began responding to language when he was still in the womb. He is ready to learn from you the moment he is born. How can you help him learn?Imitate your baby. Mimic your child’s facial expressions and sounds. Make the sounds that she likes to make anyway. Don’t fear baby talk! When you respond to your baby’s sounds and facial movements, you’re letting her know that she is communicating with you.
Talk about your day-to-day life. Talking about everything you do helps your child label his world. Describe his clothes as you put them on. Talk about what you see out the window. Label his tummy and toes as you bathe him. Everything you do and see is worth saying out loud. Sure, you’ll feel a little crazy. But hey, that’s parenthood.
Be a broken record. If you didn’t feel crazy with the narrating, you might when you start repeating everything. I once read that when you’re choosing baby books, select ones that you’re willing to read at least 100 times. The same goes for nursery rhymes and songs. Repeat everyday items, too. When you pass a dog, say, “There’s a puppy. It’s a brown puppy. Puppies say ‘woof woof.’ Hi, brown puppy!” When your baby hears the same word over and
over again, she grasps the connection between the word and the object.
Read books. Research suggests that babies respond well to pictures with bright or high-contrast colors. That’s why Tana Hoban’s Black and White and White on Black books are so popular. In books without words, talk about what you see. Choose durable board or cloth. Place books in easy reach so that your baby can grab them as readily as he does other toys. Read your favorite poems. Even read bits of the newspaper. In many ways, it doesn’t matter what you read but just that you do it often and that make your voice interesting. Create routines that incorporate reading, like before bedtime or after lunch. Use the time to snuggle close and speak softly. Your baby will adore reading simply because he will associate it with cuddling.
Discuss philosophy. OK, I’m sort of joking. But when she was a baby, I would make up conversations with my daughter. After she made a noise, I would respond “Really? I had no idea!” or, in weirder moods, I’d say “Tell me more about your favorite authors” or “What do you think of our president’s decision?” Obviously, she won’t respond in kind, but your inflections will keep her pleased and your odd topic choices will keep you laughing.
Be quiet. Research suggests that background noise like the radio or TV make it hard for your baby to discern words you say, and therefore make it hard for him to use them himself. Even talkative siblings can slow language development because they don’t leave space for the baby to practice making sounds. In fact, one friend with a precocious first child was worried when her second child wasn’t talking. A speech and language specialist realized that there was no reason for the younger child to speak as the older child talked constantly and happily anticipated the younger’s every need. Carve out quiet time where the baby gets to “talk” with just Mom or Dad.
Talk before the talk. In recent years, two approaches have gained support from both parents and researchers. Many parents have begun signing with their babies. Experts suggest beginning at 6 months but acknowledge that babies may not sign back until 16 months. You don’t need to learn a whole new language. Try learning just a few signs for everyday actions or objects like “more” or “water.” Check out babysigns.com, signingbaby.com, or aslpro.com.
The second trend answers every new parent’s greatest frustration: What does my crying baby want? Priscilla Dunstan’s assertion is that babies actually have five “words” that they say just before they begin to cry. If you learn to discern the sounds of those five words, you’ll be better able to meet your baby’s needs. One friend swore by this technique. Check out dunstanbaby.com. No matter what, remember that crying is communicating. When you attend to your baby’s cries, you teach your baby that language is purposeful and that you want to meet her needs.
Follow the leader. Let your baby lead. If your baby seems distracted or upset by a book or vocal play, then stop and try again another day. Your child will learn best when you are both enjoying yourselves. By “listening” to him, you’ll teach him that language is for communication. And what you most want to communicate is that you love him.
Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade. Send comments about this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.