That baby you saw lying in his mother’s lap looking up at her, and maybe he was bubbling or smiling as he gazed—he was learning language.
Long before they can speak, children are learning to communicate, to express themselves and to understand others. It’s a complicated, life-long process. But it’s a simple, natural one too. And there are simple, practical ways you can help your child advance in language development at each stage of his life.
During infancy, it begins with facial expressions. Look your baby in the face often and long. If she smiles, if she wrinkles her nose, if she pouts, do it back. This is rudimentary communication. She will be fascinated to see her feelings reflected back at her. Of course, she won’t consciously understand that that’s what you’re doing, but she will be intrigued. Her attention will be piqued. This is the beginning of language; it’s pre-linguistic language.
As your baby grows, encourage interactive play by making sounds or gestures your child can imitate. Then allow her time to imitate them. There is nothing like a pregnant pause, and even a six-month old baby understands it. She knows you’re waiting and it’s her turn to “speak,” in whatever form that might take. It’s all communication; it’s all language.
I should mention here that I’m drawing somewhat on the memory of “talking” with my own babies, but also (and perhaps more reliably) on the Colorado Early Learning and Development Guidelines, which I have open in another window. You can find the guidelines at earlylearningco.org. They provide tips on how to engage and encourage your child academically, socially and emotionally, at each different stage of his growth, from birth to age eight.
Language usually becomes verbal during the toddler months, and learning single words is quickly followed by the ability to engage in back-and-forth conversations. Teach your child new words, of course—name everything your child sees as much as is possible. But listen to your child too. Ask questions, open-ended questions that require more than “yes,” “no,” or “good” for an answer.
Once your child can string simple sentences together, give him opportunities to tell stories. “What were you and Tommy playing over there under the tree?” And if he tries to get off the hook with a simple answer, ask more questions. He needs to know you’re really interested in hearing all about it. This is where the communication that, increasingly, will define your relationship, begins.
When you read stories to your preschool or school-aged child, stop frequently to ask questions about the story. This technique encourages the development of higher levels of thinking. “Uh-oh, the giant said he’s hungry and that poor little girl is hiding inside the snozcumber! What do you think will happen?” Your child probably already understood the sense of danger latent in the story, but making him articulate it is important. It can encourage him to analyze his instincts—and to trust them.
Basically, anytime you find an opportunity to engage with your child—take it. Each interaction, no matter how seemingly small and insignificant, will aid her in her journey to become an articulate, thinking and socially comfortable creature. And each will strengthen the relationship she has with you and with the social world she’s growing into.
Written by Jessica Wierzbinski, a freelance writer for Early Childhood Councils throughout Colorado.