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Learning To Talk | Child Development | giggle Blogs

learning to talk

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.

April 27, 2010

Exploring the Cabinets

For our babies almost any place and anything around the home is a world to explore– take drawers and cabinets. We have all seen our babies’ beeline for a drawer we just put something away in or the cabinet in the bathroom we just opened. Frequently my initial impulse is to say “no, no” that is not for you. But instead of going with that habitual response, when I can catch myself I say go right ahead; let’s explore this place and these things together. In fact when we do there are a lot of neat things to discover. The video below shows how a quick tour through the bathroom sink cabinet yields a bounty of learning and development with language, thinking and problem solving, and social interaction. Click to view:

This cabinet has a foot scrapper, and clothing iron, hair curls and more interesting stuff for Whitney. Now if  this stuff was hot like the clothing iron and the hair curls these are a no-no but while cold in the cabinet why not explore them. The clothing iron has a container for water, a button to press and a cool control knob to turn. Whitney exercises her problem solving skills in figuring out how these features work. She exercises her language skills as she finds the vocabulary to use for the “wa-wa” container. She exercises her social skills looking to me for approval and emotional support for her forays while I still nervously say “no-no” eventhough cold in the cabinet it is all safe for her exploration. And then she finishes with a flurry of door closing as she reveals her understanding of what happens when we are all done.  See these simple little ordinary moments can be quite the Learning Adventure. Eebee’s DVD episode Little Objects, Big Ideas is all about turning these everyday things into rich learning explorations.

These opportunities for learning adventures happen throughout the day in all sorts of settings. Reading the Who’s Your Daddy post titled Explore Your World reminded me that there are an almost infinite amount of opportunities to dive in and explore things around the house or as his post suggests around the neighborhood as well.  We parents just need to slow down, use a new lens to see all these opportunities and then jump right in with our babies.

February 10, 2010

Awareness- Part 2

The development of a versatile self awareness propels many new cognitive feats. Not only can they recognize themselves in the mirror, but they can decipher the rotations and transformations of their images in the mirror based on the actions they initiate. This is the beginning of the capability of manipulating their own self-image in their mind and the capacity to rehearse and review one’s own actions. This ability to bring our own body into full view enables powerful learning through social imitation and the detailed reproduction of actions.

Imitating Stretching

Imitating Stretching

It is hard to appreciate just how important this unique kind of self-awareness is. It is what allows us to self-assemble complex skills from a one year old learning to walk to the most advanced feats we adults can perform. Just consider the simple task of driving a car where a person must learn a whole range of relatively independent actions– starting, turning, backing up, steering, accelerating, braking, shifting gears, monitoring traffic, reading road signs, keeping track of directions and street names, etc. These sub skills are usually self taught, self rehearsed, and self evaluated. Each sub skill must be integrated into a complex hierarchy or metasystem that coordinates all of the sub components into a fluid whole. What early on takes conscious deliberation eventually becomes automatic and intuitive. One year olds are already building skill upon skill. Sub skills are embedded into more complex skill hierarchies such as walking. Toddlers must be able to stand up, balance themselves, take the first step and swing their leg for the next step and eventually stop.

Mental skills are being built upon existing skills. With the rise of multisensory images now being represented and remembered in mind, a remarkable spurt of problem solving occurs as these new skills are put to use.  Although still tied to concrete actions, our babies can establish intent , set & realize goals and perform all the associated problem solving to achieve it. During early ones, all this happens non-verbally, done with images translated to actions. For example, Whitney would spy a favorite toy, recognize her desire to have it, and exchange a whole range of gestures with me that logically followed each other. She would toddle over to the shelf the toy was on and then look over her shoulder at me to enlist my attention. Once she recognized she had my attention by my nob and look, she might wield her finger toward the toy and squeal with a “demand cry” (see video). Whitney was rewarded in her problem solving steps by me giving her the toy and she gave me the reward of a big smile. No words involved but lots of cognitive thought and mental problem solving. Theses processes are the  foundations for their very consciousness and thought that are being put in place.

Around half way through the second year, toddlers make another giant leap into the more mental world of words. Instead of pointing, grabbing your shirt and pulling you over to the doorway, they become able to look us in the eye and say “Go“. This transition does not happen overnight but is a gradual process beginning as early as 16 months and continuing up to their third year. Whitney’s “Non-verbal world” of the here & now is more fully joined by a symbolic “Verbal world” of the past and future, of naming and categorizing. These two separate worlds can be exhilarating and confusing. Her familiar nonverbal world of experience lives with a completely separate version of the same event, a new world of words. Life now and forever will be lived in parallel as the verbal and nonverbal constructions of experience live together.

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)


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….

December 9, 2009

Learning Through Play

Our babies love to explore and make sense of their world as I have described in my blogs over the last several weeks– from solids (like blocks and balls)  to liquids (like water) to light (by exploring their shadows from the sun). We adults have labeled these investigations or mucking around as  “play” since the children are really enjoying themselves; to the untrained eye, it certainly does not look like work. But play is a child’s work.

Who's that in the mirror

Who's that in the mirror

And children are highly motivated in their jobs – - to figure all this stuff out. There is an intrinsic human drive to explore and master one’s environment so we just need to harness that energy and effort. How our children do their work is very concrete; they need to get their hands, mouths and bodies on things to test them out and see what they are all about. An important fact that we have not yet discussed much is how these real concrete contexts and experiences are the vehicle for all their learning—Learning Through Play. All the stuff we think of as learning and intelligence gets exercised and develops through our babies’ hands-on explorations and experiences.

Take language development: babies don’t start out an experience saying “geez I would really like to build my vocabulary by 10 new words”. The language development is embedded into and a by-product of what they are doing and other goals. Babies want to figure something out and daddy keeps calling that thing they are fascinated with by the name “shadow”, so that vocabulary word is very meaningful to them and sticks with them. The shadow then leaps forward closer to them when they walk close to a “wall”; dad narrates the action so they learn the word “wall” because it created an exciting effect they were interested in. Vocabulary building and language development happens while our babies engage in something meaningful to them and that context provides the opportunity for all the vocabulary about the specific actions, objects, features and effects that activity affords.  Flash cards provide no context so they are not as effective; nothing beats a real authentic experience and real interest for learning. This is true of the development of all competences as well as language—a babies social & emotional skills, their cognitive skills, physical skills and all.

What do we as adults and parents want our children to be learning while they go about actively exploring their world & “playing”? Language development, certainly important, is considered one of a broader category of competences. Experts have identified three important categories of learning and development that we should know about and try to gently embed into our child’s explorations and experiences. These are the 3 Cs: Character, Competences, and Concepts and I will explore each in my next post.