Closing the Word Gap: Feeding Your Baby a Good Language Diet
Guest Post By Renate Zangl, PhD
A good language diet starts with talking a lot, and as early as possible. Hearing a variety of words gives infants more opportunities to learn about all sorts of language details, such as speech sounds, and how syllables and words are combined. For example, narrating what you’re doing is excellent for the brain, which is constantly looking for patterns to learn from.
While talking a lot is important, watching how you talk matters just as much. Babies love "baby talk," or what scientists call "infant-directed speech." Baby talk is like fertilizer to the young child’s brain because its features are tailor-made for his or her learning abilities.
Baby talk is when you use your normal words and tweak them a bit making them more interesting and accessible for the young learners. For example, you say “Where’s your noooose?”, or “How’s daaady’s booooy?” in an upbeat tone and smiley face. You talk more slowly, repeat a lot, exaggerate and drag out vowels, and use shorter, simpler sentences while your voice goes up and down more often, giving it that affective, sing-songy, melodic quality babies love.
Baby talk supports language learning in many ways: It gets and holds babies’ attention and their brains literally ‘light up’ when hearing baby talk, which means the brain is most ready to learn.
Babies also smile back more and engage longer, which means longer conversations and more chances for them to learn. By their second birthday, toddlers whose parents used more baby talk and who talked with their youngsters directly said more than twice as many words as those of parents who used the least baby talk.
Reading with infants
The research is clear: Reading aloud to infants and toddlers is excellent brain and language food for them. Regardless of parental education, ethnicity, or socio-economic class, parent-to-child reading positively affects the child’s language, learning, and thinking.
Reading aloud is so important that the nation’s largest association of pediatricians, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), recommends it from birth onwards.
While reading exposes babies to lots of words, it also matters how you read. Reading in baby talk, face-to-face with the baby snuggled up to you while making deliberate pauses to include the baby is the perfect way to get him or her engaged, and to kick learning into high gear, helping to build literacy skills later on.
Singing with infants
Singing songs with infants can also help language learning. Babies love listening to songs, especially when parents and caregivers actually sing the songs themselves.
Songs heard live give the baby a richer multi-sensory experience than recorded songs can: He or she can listen to the words coming from a familiar person while watching the mouth and lip movements and bond at the same time. Yes, babies are incredible lip-readers and learn sounds not just from listening, but also from watching people’s mouths and lips.
Songs are a special kind of speech – often having exaggerated rhythm, lots of repetition, simple structure and rhyme words. All of these features are tailored to the infants’ learning abilities. Again, it matters how you sing, science suggests: Infants are more attentive, smile and engage more when caregivers sing to them in baby talk style – using a higher pitch, singing more slowly and with clear emotions.
Tuning in, listening and responding to infants
While talking a lot right from birth is the hot new topic, it is equally important (though not stressed enough) that tuning in, listening and responding to the little ones is just as important.
Learning is not a one-way street. It requires attentive, loving adults who treat babies as real conversational partners from birth: Someone who tunes in, pauses, observes, listens, and comments on their grunts, babbles, leg kicking – not ‘just’ on their words.
Tuning in and responding to the child in a timely, loving and consistent way pays off and pushes language and learning forward while making for happier babies as well. Why? Because they signal the baby that you are with her, that you have acknowledged what she did or said and your response gives special meaning to her actions, babbles and words and motivates her to stay engaged. Learning is about the back and forth interaction, and not about lecturing the baby about words.
Showing your real live you, and providing alone time
Babies are very astute social learners and they need eye contact, gestures and timely responses. They want and need to be acknowledged. Since they are just starting to learn, their brains are more susceptible to any background noise, so it’s best to have some focused face-to-face time without any distractions.
More time spent with high tech tools when little ones are around likely means more alone time, less talk, less back & forth for young children, especially for infants and toddlers who cannot tell their parent, “Talk with me”, “watch me”, “respond to me”!
Babies need real, live people, who lovingly and attentively interact with them to learn best. According to research on babies in the U.S., 9-month-old babies were only able to learn foreign speech sounds when they interacted with real live people, not when watching the same people on TV or hearing them on audio-tapes.
This is a clear testament to how much early learning relies on social interaction. It’s the back and forth dance in words, smiles, eye gazes, and other social signals with an engaged caregiver that makes learning happen. This kind of social interaction is absent from TV or video watching, except online video-chatting (which may explain why babies seem to learn words in face-to-face video chats).
The fact is, infants and toddlers do not learn words by simply hearing them. They do not learn words by watching TV, watching even the best baby videos or by overhearing words on the radio or phone conversations.
Renate Zangl, PhD, is an educator and child language researcher interested in how infants and toddlers learn to communicate, understand and talk. With over 15 years of experience in the field, she has published numerous books and articles, and worked at various research institutions in the United States and Europe, including Stanford University; University of California, San Diego; Graz University, Austria; and Laboratoire de Sciences Cognitives et Psycholinguistique, Paris. Zangl has worked (and played!) for many years with young children when they first start to communicate, understand, and talk, and with bilingual children, children learning a second language in their school years, and children with special needs.