Mamas and Papas - your work is vital!
Primary caregivers work hard every day feeding, washing, dressing and helping their beautiful babies sleep. These tasks are crucial for baby’s physical survival. Mums, Dads and other caregivers also perform another equally important set of tasks many times each day – those that are linked more with baby’s emotional survival.
The primary caregivers play a pivotal role in guiding the child’s language development. They set the framework for baby to learn in, creating space for moments to connect. They notice when the child is alert and wants to interact, they stop when baby has had enough and use simple language in conversations so baby can learn the basic sounds and patterns of their native language (its not hard because babies are sooo cute, right?!)
Although the bulk of people learn language through their ears, this is not just about hearing – babies who are deaf meet all the linguistic milestones if their caregivers respond appropriately and engage in sign language from the start.
Caregivers build trust
When caregivers respond in a timely way to their young baby’s cries, the child learns that someone will be there when they need help. Mummy notices and helps when baby is hungry, Daddy sees when baby is tired, big sister spots that baby wants to play, Grandma notices when baby needs an extra cuddle. This communication needs to be established between the child and the primary caregivers long before language can develop. Cuddles, smiles, responding quickly to cries, coos and giggles, playing face-to-face and even simply maintaining eye contact are all examples of the wonderful dialogue that takes place between carers and babies.
A nine month old will be more motivated to communicate if they’ve been responded to appropriately by caregivers in the early days.
Rituals around feeding, sleeping and playtime are also important for a newborn baby’s later language development. These predictable events create a kind of script or language ‘map’ that baby learns, and from here can start to notice patterns in the words and phrases the caregivers are using in and around each routine. Later, singing songs and nursery rhymes and playing simple games is important too because of the repeated language patterns throughout (another round of 'peek-a-boo', pronto!)
Caregivers take turns
Learning that conversations involve two or more participants taking turns to speak is a major step in a child’s language journey. Caregivers teach babies to take turns by acting as if they expect baby to respond to what they’ve just said - by leaving a natural pause to give baby space to gaze, smile, coo, move their hand, or vocalise back. They also show respect for the baby’s turn by staying quiet for longer than in an adult conversation, then when the baby responds, they act like they understand what baby meant.
Being treated as if they are a meaningful part of the conversation is a key motivator for babies to try and communicate in any way they can.
Caregivers respond consistently
From about 6 months old, babies deliberately seek out opportunities to communicate using eye contact, gestures, and more comprehensive vocalisations. Consistent responses from caregivers are even more important now because they deepen those lines of communication and keep the baby wanting to try and communicate. When parents don’t respond immediately some babies will double their efforts – cooing louder or waving their arms about - experts note the babies who push back the hardest at this stage understand more than their peers do when they get to 13 months.
Caregivers may also notice around 6 months that the baby wants to examine things together. When they develop the ability to focus on an object alongside a caregiver and understand that both are referring to that object (‘joint attention’) they take a huge step forward in terms of their language. This is so important for language because it is within the framework of shared focussed experience that baby actually starts to learn specific patterns, words, and phrases. Both adult and child send out the signals for joint attention. The caregivers might stop and point to something or shake a toy to direct baby’s to it; they might sit baby up or hold a toy at the right height. Baby might show interest in something which prompts the caregiver to stop and explore it (usually with a running commentary about it too). Parents that consistently focus with their child in this way are helping their child’s language so much, especially if they do it when the child is around 9 months. The child has better language comprehension later. (Amazing huh?!)
Caregivers use 'IDS'
A child must hear speech over and over again before they start to learn the language. There is a particular way that caregivers talk with young babies that really helps their learning; where we use a squeaky high voice, exaggerated pitch and tones, gestures, gazes, and facial expressions, and 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 different sounds in each conversation too. Squeaky exaggerated speech creates the conditions to have conversations with our preschoolers later, and babies of 9 months whose carers speak in short sentences to them have bigger vocabularies at 18 months.
Caregivers, every hug, smile, giggle, pause, silly face and descriptive conversation you have with your baby is banking language skills they will soon be using to converse with you. What you do is so vital.
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. Thank you and keep up the good work!
This is the fourth post in our language series. Next up we see why gestures are so important for babies' language.
Ngā Manaākitanga (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.