Waah Waah! Pause. Waah Waah! Pause. What's that you say baby? Its language!
Starting with listening and kicking from within the womb, to gazing at their parents at only minutes old, babies communicate with the adults around them well before they say their first words. Number two in the eardrops language series is a whistle stop tour of the first six months. This first year can be so intense and it is helpful to have a basic understanding of how your little one is trying to communicate with you.
The number of words an infant hears during the first twelve months has a direct effect on how quickly they learn language later in the preschool years. So talk as much as you can with your baby because these early experiences with language are crucial to activate the brain, firing those neurons up! Babies contribute to their learning too by consciously observing, exploring, experimenting, and seeking information as best they can.
This is broad general development information, so don’t stress if your baby is doing or not doing these things - every personality is different and each baby creates their own individual journey to language.
Newborn to 3 months
Babies strive to connect with their caregivers from their first moments. Through a combination of watching, listening, crying and moving, they soon learn how to let you know when they need something.
Right from the start babies take in information at an astounding rate through every one of their senses. They have already been listening for months from inside the womb and in the early days they prefer human voices to all other sounds, in particular their mother’s voice. A newborn baby will stop crying when Mum and Dad talk to them and Mum and Dad will talk to help their new baby stop crying – the beginning of deep communication within the family.
Mother and baby move in tune to the voice and sounds of each other - a beautiful dance that babies start within 20 minutes of birth. That’s biology baby…
Although babies recognise their Mama’s sound and smell from the first moments, they know and prefer her face within a couple of weeks, deliberately smiling at her from about 3-6 weeks. They start off seeing best at a distance of around 20cm, spot-on for when they’re being held close (newborn snuggles, genetically programmed to be perfect). Babies love to gaze at faces. Even very young babies will seek out the human voice to discover the face attached to that voice.
Newborn babies communicate with their head movements too, holding still and focussing intently when interested and turning away when they’ve had enough. Other body gestures start early - even the youngest infants open their mouth, poke their tongue out, and at a few weeks old, flail their arms about.
Even though babies are too young to understand what’s being said, parents and caregivers usually treat them as if they do, by looking directly at them during the conversation and pausing after they speak to give the baby a chance to respond. This is so helpful because it teaches the baby the rituals of our communication – taking turns, using facial expressions, nodding, smiling, and generally reacting to one another. By about 6 weeks baby will likely be vocalising, cooing and ‘talking’ back during the conversations (so cute!) Language expert Robert E. Owens Jr says "children become communicators because we treat them that way" and Noam Chomsky is convinced we're born with a 'language acquisition device' in our brains.
Babies need to develop their memory in these early days to be able to remember language patterns later. Creating regular daily routines is a great start.
It is in these early weeks and months that caregivers set up routines with their babies, rituals around daily activities that actually create the framework for language development. Take bath time, for example. With each bath the same sequence of events happens and it’s likely that similar words are spoken too. Babies soon learn the sounds and patterns of those sentences and later work out that they mean something (but not for a while yet - words need to be heard thousands of times before these connections form). But its the routine that creates the space for baby to learn in.
3 to 6 months
Somehow over these next few months babies must make sense of what they are hearing and seeing in order to form meaning from it. A mammoth task – but they happily take on the challenge.
By around 3 months, babies know different people, and respond accordingly by smiling longer at their caregivers and choosing not to smile at strangers unless they want to. It may not be obvious, but babies are deliberately imitating people’s movements by now, as well as facial expressions and sounds. During these months a child will see thousands of facial expressions – imitating as many as they can. Caregivers can imitate back – hours of fun! This is the season of face-to-face play (later it becomes more about toys and moving to explore).
It is really tough to distinguish between individual speech sounds in the ‘stream’ of chat, but somehow babies start to do this during these months. At around 5 months baby will begin to vocalise more deliberately, talking to themselves in the mirror and to toys too, as well as people. They also usually respond to their own name by about 5-6 months.
There’s a particular way that caregivers talk with young babies that really helps their learning. We use a squeaky high voice, exaggerated pitch and tones, gestures, gazes, and facial expressions, and we leave long pauses to include baby in each conversation. People all round the world do this with babies, no matter the language they are speaking – this is programmed into us! Experts call this ‘Infant Directed Speech’ (IDS).
IDS is different from regular speech because the adults speak slowly and in short simple sentences, we talk about what’s going on in the immediate environment (nothing too abstract or theoretical), we only use a few words and repeat these throughout the conversation. And although we’re not usually aware of it, we only use a few distinct sounds in each conversation too.
Whether or not a baby can perceive speech patterns at 3-6 months has a direct relationship to how they understand words and phrases later.
Once babies start to learn the sound patterns of their soon-to-be native language (or languages) they organise the sounds into types and sequences. This is a huge step. Baby is learning that there are rules to language, as well as learning the individual words. Playing repetitive games is important during these months. Grandma’s got it right with the hours of ‘peek a boo’ and endless nursery rhymes!
Perhaps the biggest step of all that babies take towards language in these early months is that they develop the ability to consciously focus on something at the same time their caregiver does. Experts call this ‘joint attention’. This skill is particularly important for language development because its another key framework that babies can learn in. Mum, Dad, or caregiver will hold up a toy or other object to draw the baby’s attention to it, then they will both study it, and the adult usually names or describes it. In a few month’s time, baby will be the one holding the toy up and looking at their caregiver to start the conversation, which is another exciting step towards language, but for now the adult needs to take the lead.
Experience of language is vital during the whole of the first year, as a lack of exposure can have a seriously negative effect on a baby’s later language development. As a caregiver, you can do so much to help your child with their language. This is the second post in our Language series 'Follow your child’s journey to language with Eardrops'. Next up we take a look at the language mountain that babies climb between 6 and 12 months and after that, see why primary caregivers are vital in a child's journey to language.
Ngā manaakitanga (with best wishes), Liz xx
Information for the Eardrops blog language series was guided and overseen by Dr Jayne Newbury, Researcher in Child Language (University of Canterbury), with the comprehensive information in Language Development: An Introduction by Robert E. Owens, Jr. (2015). This post was written by Liz Donnelly, creator of Eardrops, audio stories that help develop listening skills and improve everyday language in young children.