Language means a great deal more than talking. From the day your baby is born, you and he communicate, carrying on conversations through eye contact, smiles, and body language. Your baby reacts to your voice and the sound of your heartbeat. His primary tool of communication is crying. By the age of two months, your baby probably has developed different cries to indicate hunger, pain, fatigue, and discomfort. This section details the milestones of a baby's language development and provides tips for encouraging your child to speak.
The Development of Speech
Your baby's earliest noncrying speech sounds are the throaty noises that come with increased production of saliva -- the gurgling, sputtering, cooing, and squealing that begin at about three months of age.
Soon he begins to string together and repeat consonant and vowel combinations, like "ba-ba-ba." Be aware it's a rare baby who follows any timetable for developing talking skills; children vary in this as in any other area of development. It may be at any time between six months and a year that your baby calls one or two very important people by name (most likely, "Mama" and "Dada"). In fact, an early talker may know and use as many as a dozen words at one year of age. They are probably all nouns, his versions of the words for such familiar objects as cookie, juice, dog, and cup.
You know your child really is anxious to talk as adults do when you begin to hear continuous jargon, strings of meaningless gibberish, complete with inflections that make them sound like a stream of talk in a foreign language. This kind of talk may go on for a long time after your child is able to make himself very well understood with real words, usually when he plays alone. Between the ages of one and two years, your child probably has a vocabulary of about 50 words (no doubt one of them is "No") and enjoys singing along with you to familiar and repetitive songs. Don't be surprised if your child seems to hit a plateau in speech development when he learns to walk; it's difficult to work hard on two skills at once. Children usually begin to string nouns and verbs together to make sentences of two or more words sometime between 2 and 2 1/2 years of age, and an early talker may even add a preposition (under the table) or an adjective (big dog). By the time your child is three, he may have a vocabulary of as many as 300 words. You'll perhaps notice that the frequency of temper tantrums and periods of frustration decrease as your child finds the words to express anger and desires.
Encouraging Your Child to Talk
Encourage your child to talk all the time you're together, as you go about your daily activities. A few ways to consciously aid language development include the following:
- Speak directly to your baby often, giving total attention to her. Get down to your child's level physically, and look her in the eye.
- Speak slowly and distinctly, describing what you are doing with and for the baby, using all the appropriate words -- parts of the body, pieces of clothing, kinds of food, favorite toys. Use the same words for similar objects when your child is younger than two years of age; call all footgear shoes for example, not sandals or sneakers.
- Keep explanations and directions simple. By about 15 months, your child is able to do what you ask if you say something like "Bring me a diaper." You'll cause confusion if you use a long sentence that begins with "Run into the bedroom, will you, and..."
- Use picture books to help your child develop word-object associations, pointing out familiar objects often and asking her to find the dog, the baby, or the house in pictures. Play word games, teach your child finger plays, and sing songs that have accompanying actions.
- Give your child your attention when she speaks to you. Wait patiently for her to get out the right words to finish a thought instead of finishing it yourself or giving what she asks for before the words are out.
- Be equally patient in answering all your child's questions, however endless they seem to be. Practice expanding a bit on a question by giving additional information. For example, if your child asks "What's that?" about a squirrel, add to your answer the fact that the animal is in the tree because it's looking for acorns to eat.
- Discourage baby talk and incorrect grammar, not by correcting your child, which is discouraging and makes her hesitant about talking at all, but by repeating the words or the sentence correctly.
Keep in mind that language development includes "receptive" language (the understanding of words) as well as "expressive" language (the speaking of words). Throughout early childhood, and especially during infancy and toddlerhood, children always can understand much more than they can say. So if your child isn't saying much, even up to two years of age, there probably is nothing to worry about as long as you can see that her "receptive" vocabulary is increasing steadily.
As your child's speaking habits mature, she can interact more meaningfully with you. Her social interactions take on a new level of complexity, and her frustration lessens as her ability to express herself increases. Turn to the next page for a complete discussion of the evolution of a newborn's relationship with her parents and other immediate family members.
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