Let's Talk: An article for Parents of Pre-verbal and Newly Verbal Children

Language learning is a natural process. As active observers of their environment, children constantly take in and process the sounds, sights, smells and other sensations that ultimately help them make sense of their world. But when does language learning begin?

Research strongly suggests that language is linked to a baby's initial exposure to sounds in utero. The fetus is bathed in the sounds of its mother's voice beginning at a gestational age 7 months. Some baby books actually suggest speaking to the fetus and putting headphones that amplify classical music on the pregnant mother's abdomen. Although there is some controversy over whether this pre-natal exercise promotes speech and language development, there is little dispute that parents should talk to their children as early as possible. There are a few reasons for this:

Children understand many concepts and aspects of language before they can produce language. Therefore, we want to speak to our children as if they understand us. Consequently, the sooner we begin to speak to our children in this way (even in utero!), the sooner they will actually understand what we're saying. This doesn't mean that we want to speak to our children in such a sophisticated manner that even most adults wouldn't understand , rather that we need to use rich language with varied vocabulary and intact grammar. In this way we provide the child with a model or example of language that they'll use in the future.

Responding to your child is also of critical importance to their language development. Newborns express themselves primarily through crying. Sometimes it's challenging to discern what your child's cry means. What is her need? Is she hungry, tired, wet irritated, etc? Even if you can't exactly tap into her need it is good practice to acknowledge her feelings and her verbalizations. ("You seem sad," "I guess you need your diaper changed.")

Acknowledging your child's feelings enhances his social and emotional development and acknowledging his verbalizations promotes his speech and language development. Since we're concerned about a child's total growth, we need to view these areas of development as inextricably linked rather than mutually exclusive. Responding to your child is the first step in communication as it allows him to know that he has an effect on the world around him. Furthermore, responding to him makes him feel important, which contributes to positive self-esteem.

So how should we speak to our children?

* Speak to your child as often as possible, especially if she's pre-verbal. The more you talk, the more likely she is to acquire an enriched vocabulary.

* Never use "Tarzan speech: "Me want cookie," "We go."

* Listen to your child. Listening helps him to speak and communicate more effectively because he feels understood by you and appreciated for trying to communicate. Stop multi-tasking and maintain good eye contact so he feels listened to.

* Let your child be the communication leader. Refrain from "editing" or criticizing what she talks about. The more she thinks you're interested in what she has to say, the more she'll communicate with you throughout her life.

* Comment instead of question. Questions put pressure on your child to answer things he may not be ready to answer. Think in terms of producing a "language initiator". We want to talk with our children, not at them.

* Keep language descriptive but concrete. Young children are not developmentally able to talk about abstract concepts. Keep your language in the "here and now."

* Reinforce and expand your child's communication.

* If your 6 month old says, "baba-baba", repeat this back to her, mimicking your child's tone and rhythm.

* If your 12 to 15 month old is trying to produce words, try to figure out what he is saying, and repeat it back in "full sentence form." For example, if your child says "wa-wa" for "water", you might say "Water" Would you like some water"?

* If your 18 to 24 month old is starting to speak in word phrases or short sentences, reinforce and expand on those utterances. For example, if she says "Mama, wet" pointing to her wet shirt, you might say, "I see, your shirt looks wet." If she continues, "Mama, WET!" you might say, "It looks like you want me to change your wet shirt, is that right?"

* Remember not to correct errors. Children will often stop talking altogether when they're being corrected. Instead, repeat the word or sentence with the appropriate articulation and / or grammar. For example, if your child says, "I want tootie," you might say, "You want a cookie. Sure you can have a cookie."

* Use routines (mealtime, bathtime, etc.) to stimulate speech and language development. With young children, this starts as a monologue by the parent describing his own actions and those of his child. The repeatability, predictability and structure of routines teach children that events are sequenced. This helps them learn to follow directions and organize their own language.

* Get on the floor and play with your child. Play promotes emotional, social, motor, language and cognitive development. Essentially, play is your child's work as well as their means of communication. In addition, playing with your child helps her feel safe and secure. A feeling of safety is essential to language learning and communication.

* Read to your child every day. Reading facilitates language development and improves attention skills. Rhyming books and songs are especially excellent.

Many parents ask when they should be concerned about their child's speech and language development. Ask yourself the following questions before seeing a Speech-Language Pathologist:

1) Are my child's speech and/or language skills on par with most other children of the same age? Remembering that there is a wide range of "normal" and that children develop at different rates, ask yourself:

a) Does my child have difficulty following simple commands, understanding words, or saying single words by age 12 months?

b) Can my child point to named objects and produce simple phrases by age 24 months?

c) Can my child identify the function of objects and produce many consonant sounds by age three years?

d) Does my child have intelligible speech (others can understand her, not just family members) by age four years?

e) Does my child follow three-step commands, use a variety of vocabulary words, and self-correct by age five years?

2) Are my child's play skills consistent with those of her peers?

3) Is my child's behavior, particularly eye-contact and attention span, appropriate for his age?

4) Is my child's hearing normal (turns toward a sound by 4 to 6 months)?

5) Has a schoolteacher and / or pediatrician recommended that my child see a Speech-Language Pathologist?

Following these simple guidelines will help your child's language and communication skills develop and will start you on the road to a successful relationship with your child.