first words

July 7, 2010

Toddler Conversations

What kind of conversations are you having with your little one? At the youngest ages, there is amazingly rich non-verbal dialogue but when it comes to talking we adults are doing most of it. Our toddlers do show a distinct progression in how they share their ideas. From one and a half to two yrs, toddlers usually have very simple and isolated ideas. For example, in the video below, Whitney expresses that she would like me to “sit down” next to her while she eats lunch and then tries to communicate that she does not want her usual nap after lunch:

This conversation is characterized by isolated ideas without much fluency and really no narrative at all. Between 2.5 and 3 years, our toddlers begin to connect their isolated islands of understanding into more comprehensive narratives across events and time. These Narratives go further than just words to describe things. Narratives have a dramatic through line with actors who have desires directed toward goals which take place in a context. Below is an example of Whitney’s new ability with conversation and narrative stories:

Whitney was now beginning to understand how one event leads to another (a storm can create a mess); how ideas operate across time (If the mess was created yesterday; today we need to clean it up); and how ideas operate across space (If the street sweeper can clean up the street, it could also clean-up our driveway). Ideas can now be used to explain emotions (I don’t like that noise from the machines; that noise makes me mad) and for logical thinking (that is fantasy instead of reality). This period is a monumental stepping stone toward mature, rational thinking. You can have conversations on just about anything at anytime and anywhere, so engage your toddler and see what they have to say.

January 26, 2010

Language Development- Part 3

During the third year of language development, early advantages compound as two year olds have learned that words represent things and know enough words to help them figure out new words by context very quickly.  You may notice your child making good, quick guesses as to what certain words mean.  This is called fast mapping the meaning of new words.  I noticed that if I used a sentence with all familiar words except one, but the context was familiar Whitney would quickly figure out the meaning of the new word. Two year olds are best able to carry on a conversation with others when there are only two people involved in the conversation (see video at http://bit.ly/6Ueixh).

Picture 5

As Whitney started having more conversations with others, she would also begin to recognize if her message was understood and to repeat it and clarify if necessary. This is an important step in effectively communicating with others. While this ability generally emerges around 2 ½ year of age, it isn’t until children are older, that they ask for clarification from others when they do not understand. Children are also learning to use language to demand reasons from others, which makes it possible for children to test limits and challenge caregivers verbally.  Whitney began to ask why she couldn’t have a cookie before dinner and would even use language to try to negotiate, most often in the form of pleading, to persuade us otherwise. By the time they are 3, our children have learned to use language to express their feelings, to try to resolve a conflict with someone else, to negotiate and to make their needs and wants known. They have mastered an enormous amount in these brief few years.

All of these early language developments then have an influence on the later developments of multiple academic and social skills during preschool, primary school, and beyond. So language in particular is a key skill to nurture and support in our babies.  It is important to note that what is not mentioned for support is flash cards nor anything about the ABCs. Language develops as your baby interacts with and shows an interest in real things. So as you play with water, blocks, balls and other things around the house, narrate what is happening, describe the details to keep the flow of language a rich source of stimuli for your baby. If your baby has siblings around the house that will also help increase the language a baby hears. In addition, the media we choose makes a difference. Research now shows that Baby Einstein is not well designed for language acquisition; but content does matter, Baby TV that has different design features such as eebee’s Adventures better supports a babies’ need for language acquisition in a context that makes sense for babies at a pace they can follow.

January 20, 2010

Language Development- Part 2

During the second year, your child will build a significant vocabulary, learn some rules of grammar, realize that all things have a name, and probably even begin to express himself using two word sentences and phrases in addition to better making marks that stand for something.

As Whitney learned about the characteristics of objects, she also began to realize that every object has a name.  She began to learn many new words and quickly map labels to objects as she heard things being labeled and referred to with words. Her first words were frequently over generalized or too specific. For example, “Dada” would be used for all men. By 18 months, most children say about 50 words. Once they reach 50 words, a critical mass seems to be reached and a “naming explosion” occurs. Words seem to spurt forth. This is also the time when children start to ask the “wh” questions: What’s that? (“Whassat?), why, when, etc. Researchers have estimated that children can learn as many as nine new words a day. Your child will understand much more than they can say so it is important to talk with them about what they are experiencing and feeling.

You want to think to yourself:  Narrate, narrate, narrate.  Pretend like you are reading a book aloud to your child all day long – and you are telling them the story of their daily life. You might think it is mundane to tell them that you are putting their right arm in their sleeve or pouring the cereal in their bowl or holding their hand while you walk down the steps together, counting the steps as you go, but they will find you fascinating.   And it should give your child a huge language boost.

Your child will be more effective in making his wants and ideas known to you as he adds the use of words to his communication with gestures. During the second half of the second year you will hear more two-word utterances, such as “more bacon.” (see video at http://bit.ly/5IEMy6)

MoreBacon

Most of the time we hear about language development stages as if every child goes through the same stages at the same ages. It is also useful to keep in mind that there is a substantial degree of variability in the more intricate, nuanced nature of each individual’s language ability and expression. As parents we want to tune into and support the specific abilities and expressions of our child. Language development is a key area that can effect other areas of development and can predict both school and later life success. So remember the mantra: narrate, narrate, narrate and pick up on any attempts at communication your toddler makes. Keep those communication circles going back and forth, back and forth as long as you can.

January 11, 2010

Language Development- Part 1

Consider the difference between a newborn and the almost adult-like speech and grammatically complex conversations of a 3 yr old. The transformation in language development in that short 3 years is astonishing. My daughter Whitney went from a limited reportoire of wailing cries to a pointing and gesturing  competent nonverbal communicator (see video At http://bit.ly/4I2R6P ) at one year and a pretty agile conversationalist in her twos where she could express her feelings, try to resolve a conflict with her siblings, negotiate and make her needs and wants known.

Finger Pointing is a early communication tool

Finger Pointing is a early communication tool

These abilities to understand and use language are certainly critical developmental competencies that children must master during the first three years of life. And they don’t happen automatically. As mentioned in the last few blog posts, competences are built by the daily interactions with the multitude of people and objects with which babies interact in their everyday settings.

Early language development is stimulated by the linguistic input that an infant hears on a regular basis. The most proximal and influential of these sources are parents; siblings; other children and adults living in the immediate household; and even  media stimuli (such as Baby Einstein or eebee’s Adventures DVDs) to which infants are exposed. Infants and toddlers are extraordinarily good at acquiring language; and, during this period, they are uniquely sensitive to the quantity and quality of the linguistic input heard.

Even in the first year, although it felt strange for me to be talking out loud at the grocery store describing all the different fruits, their colors and shapes when Whitney was just staring at me and not speaking back, it is definitely worth the strange looks—the more language the better. Even before birth, babies have been eavesdropping on their mother’s conversations and show a distinct preference for their mother’s voice and their mother’s language. At birth, babies are predisposed to attend to sound and language. Newborns respond to vocalizations and sound around them and recognize the voices of their mothers and fathers. In the first months of life, infants show a preference for “parentese” a type of vocalization that is high in pitch with a sing-song quality.

Babies are primed to analyze the language streams coming at them all day. Nature has given them the tools to absorb the jumble of language and break it into parts. They actually find the boundaries of sentences, where one ends and the other begins. They recognize the units or words within the sentences. Whenever I was with Whitney I would be sure to talk about whatever we were doing throughout the day – as I was feeding, dressing and diapering or bathing her.  Hearing the sounds of the words wires her brain for language even though she doesn’t know exactly what the words mean. One of the first words that babies recognize is their own name and it turns out that this is a big deal for their language development.  When you hear a new language coming at you, it helps to recognize one or two very frequent words. Then you can use your name as a wedge into the language stream, recognizing that new things come before and after your name.  Babies benefit from this same strategy, so use your Baby’s name often!

On the expressive side of language development, infants experiment with making sounds and communicating. They begin by making some rudimentary “coo’s” and “ah’s”, and progress through various stages of babbling. First comes the back of the throat vowel sounds (eg “aaa”, “eee”, and so on); then around 7 months come the first consonant sounds (ba, ga, ma) as babies close their lips when sounding. Babbling is an important step on the way to controlling the voice box (larynx), tongue, lip position and volume. There is a lot of work to be done before that first word can pop out – - usually between 10 and 15 months of age. Before they use words though, they will also display their understanding of your words and communicate with non-verbal gestures and actions.

During the first year, babies discover that they have thoughts and needs of their own and learn how to share these with others. They figure out that they can use language and non-verbal communication to make things happen in their world! Baby Signs is a very popular trend where babies use gestures to indicate ideas like “milk,” “eat,” “more,” or “change me.” Research has shown that teaching signs helps give babies a way to communicate before the entire orchestra of oral sentences and words are able to be expressed, and paves the way for using other symbol systems to communicate- such as verbal or written language. When your baby starts pointing and gesturing probably around 10 months, you can start by introducing a small number of signs. The more you use the sign, the more likely it is your baby will learn it.

More on language development in next week’s post….