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
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….