Speak TO your child
The sheer quantity of speech addressed to the child is the single most important factor in learning language, regardless of how many languages you are working with. It doesn't help if you talk on the phone all day or make the baby watch television (although TV can be great for preschoolers). Babies will only make sense of what they hear if the words refer to something they can directly relate to -- the here and now. Particularly for young infants, face-to-face contact is key. Babies are absolutely fascinated with human faces which make language even more engaging for them. As early as four months, babies have already started linking sounds to mouth movements, although they can't see how their own faces move. Maybe this is why babies love to be imitated so they can finally see what their faces must look like when they make their sounds. So, coo back to your heart's content.
Studies have shown that if the amount of spoken language is the most important factor, the second most important is the amount of positive vs. negative feedback the child hears. Early on, when a baby is struggling to spit out her first syllables, correcting her is the most counterproductive thing a parent can do. Correcting the speech may actually inhibit language skills. Instead, try affirmations, repetitions, and elaborations, which will encourage your baby to talk more. Try saying, "Yes!", "Really?", "Wow!" with a broad smile and applause all around.
Quality of language
Language quality is important enough that nature provided 'parentese,' the universally used high-pitched voice people use when talking to babies (even young siblings use this speech pattern.) The simpler, clearer, and more positive your voice, the higher its value to a young child. This doesn't mean you should use baby talk. Full sentences with proper grammar are what you want your baby to hear. A word of caution, though: don't just flood your baby with words. You may be answering your own questions for a long time. Asking them and allowing for a pause to gives your baby a chance to chime in with her two cents in the form of an appropriately placed coo, ahh, or grunt -- sounds that will delight both you and her.
Repetition and reinforcement are great ways to keep speech simple and get a small conversation out of even a single word. Children love all forms of repetition (as all parents who have read the same bedtime stories over and over know well). But, repetition is how they learn and re-reading the same stories also makes their world more predictable, in a small way.
Repeating words and phrases rapidly reinforces the neural pathways in the brain. One trick is to repeat baby's word and add something to it. Suppose your baby says, "Cat!" Respond with, "Yes, a white cat!" Or, ask lots of questions and expand upon the initial prompt: "What is that? Is that a ball? Can you throw the ball? Look, the doggie has a ball too! What color is the ball? and so on. Have fun with it, but don't turn it into a drill.
Without a doubt, books are the most effective tool for teaching language. Countless studies show that parents do their best teaching while reading to their young children and this initial investment has great returns. Research has also shown that frequent book reading leads to more advanced language skills giving young readers a head start that remains well into grade school. Simple, bright picture books captivate babies and help them focus on the right word/object combination. And, the great thing is that books are available free of charge at any library! A good trick to get more value from your story-reading time is to turn it into a dialogue, encouraging your child's comments, responses, and elaborations. Who are the important characters? What are they doing? What did they do before? And, in the case of favorite stories, what is going to happen next? Such interaction has been reported to accelerate two-year olds' language development by as much as nine months.
So why books, and not CDs or TV? All help, and variety of the language interaction is great, but books are superior -- in particular for really young babies. Experts agree that books are the most important tool in language learning, even if only one language. Why? It is more focused:
- You sit down, look at a picture point and repeat the word several times.
- It's a quieter less distracting setting, making the child more receptive.
- You only discuss one object at a time, and the picture is well within eyesight of the baby.
- Baby often can see your face and how the mouth moves helping her to form the sounds herself.
- Also, if you are anything like me there is only so much chit-chat monologue you can endure. A book really helps when fresh out of subjects!
- A great side benefit of reading books early is that children who love books (as opposed to CDs or videos) do better with later literacy skills such as reading and writing.
Just make sure that the books are age appropriate with the right amount of detail and coloring on the illustrations to be engaging without being overwhelming. Finally, look at it form the child's perspective, a safe and cozy setting, great topics he can relate to, with someone that is fascinated by every word he says - what better forum to promote language, any languages?
Need ideas on what books to choose? Take a peek at our favorite picks in the product section.