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For the Love of Language
Tips on language development for infants and toddlers
I am not a psychologist, a teacher or a speech therapist. I am just an ordinary mother, with many good things and many bad things. But I happen to have a 2-year-old son, Joshua, who has particularly good language skills (not only according to his totally non-targeted mother, but also some teachers and child development specialists), so I often ask questions about how . we ‘were’ that. Of course Garrick (my husband) and I didn’t do it, Joshua did. And there are any number of factors – from genetics to how slow he started walking – that could account for his ability with vocabulary and pronunciation. However, I took some time to consider how we managed language in our home, and this is what I can share.
Start at the very beginning
Talk to your children from the word, or rather from the words ‘There is no way, two bands, I’m pregnant!’ It is well documented that little jellybeans in the womb acquire language skills, especially the sounds and rhythms of their mother tongue. Garrick used to read complex metaphysical literature in my stomach, but there is really no need to go beyond reading your favorite magazine, novel or even your email out loud in your Shakespeare. It’s the sound that counts, not the content.
Talk, Talk, Talk
We talked (and still do) with Joshua all day. Whether it was in the bag as a baby, or in the car seat while Garrick was driving, we would explain what we were doing (Look, Mom is adding soap to the water) or what we were seeing ( It’s windy today, can you see those leaves dancing?), no matter how pedestrian. Yes, it feels a bit kooky to talk to a one-week-old baby, but I’m sure he’s listening and will often respond with raised eyebrows or turning his head towards the sound. And when he responds with bubbles and spit, respect that as his language and treat it as a ‘real’ dialogue, complete with questions and facial expressions. The gurgle conversation is wonderful for self-esteem and social skills.
As Joshua gets older, we will use more emotional language (I feel sad today because I miss Nanna). Not only does this give him valuable vocabulary, which more than once saved a tantrum (after all, if you can explain how you feel, you usually don’t need to demonstrate it), it also shows that adults have the same feelings . he does, and that builds trust.
Parentese vs boffinese
Before I became a parent, one of my (many) theories was that I would NEVER use the kind of baby that I heard other parents use. No icchy-icchy coo-coos in our erudite house, thank you very much. To my great embarrassment and shock, a new sly language escaped my lips the moment I held Joshua in my arms. I called him ninky and noo-noo before we even left the clinic. Well, there is this theory (probably in the same graveyard that also now holds my theory about no dummies or Panado). My sense is that parentese, as it is euphemistically called, is a combination of rather soothing sounds, both parent and child. It also becomes a very personalized way of bonding because many of the words are made-up spontaneously and will be unique to your home.
That said, we also did from the beginning talk to Joshua the way we talked to each other – never replacing ‘porridge’ with ‘num-num’, for example, or ‘penis’ with ‘wee-wee’. They are at their most absorbing at a young age, and the real word is no more difficult to learn than any other. But there is no need to try to increase your speaking level to make your child smart (whatever “smart” means). It won’t be easy, nor fun, and anyway, kids are like sniffer dogs for inauthenticity. Simply include them in family conversations with sincere respect.
Sound of music
Garrick and I often joked that, since we had children, our house had become a musical. We put EVERYTHING in the song (the pot, the pot, a fun place to be; the pot, the pot, it’s made for your wee). While you might lose some of your most sophisticated friends, or the perfect neighbor, your children will sing their way to a better memory for words and a good sense of the rhythm and rhyme of language. Perhaps most importantly, they will see their parents being a bit silly and having fun, which makes them feel like they want to be on the same team as you and, you guessed it, speak the same language.
Which brings me to the point about making language fun. Helping your children to speak is not a chore, nor a competitive exercise. If you have this hidden attitude, these sniffer dogs will find it and reflect it back to you in some creative, exasperating way. It’s a joy to discover language and make it your own, show them that in the way you approach words. I mentioned singing, but the same applies to making silly poems with nonsensical rhymes (Here’s your step, don’t let it hit your eyelashes!) or deliberately doing things wrong (What’s at the end of your legs , is that your) nose?). Children LOVE to be a bit absurd and will learn more easily from adults who can also be a bit absurd.
Encourage expression, not perfection
This may be a bit rich coming from me (a pedant of linguistics and literature post-grad), but the goal of learning languages is not to develop perfect grammar, but to be able to express yourself accurately and magnificently. In fact, it doesn’t matter if your little one tells you breathlessly that he went on a big train and ate a snack. Wow! He shares his life and thoughts with you, which is sacred and something you’ll probably wish he did more of when he’s older. A respectful response to this is to match and reflect his excitement WITHOUT CORRECTION and simply repeat his sentence using more grammatically correct words: ‘Joshua said that he went on a train and ate a sandwich, Wow! I can see you are so excited about this’. The more children feel confident in speaking, the more they speak.
We had breakfast at an outdoor restaurant this morning and, as usual, we were talking to Joshua about the things around us. When we pointed to the shade umbrella that was covering our table, he told us it was a kite. The automatic response to this is to say ‘No honey, that’s not a kite, it’s an umbrella’. Harmless enough, but very dangerous. I’m sure any parent knows the effectiveness of any sentence that starts with the word ‘no’ (closed ears, defiance, anger if you’re lucky and withdrawal or shame if you’re not), but more than that, there’s a reasoning process in your child’s response that demand respect. When I observed this umbrella I noticed that it was made of some wooden poles arranged with material pulled tightly on it – exactly like a kite! Instead of discouraging Joshua, we congratulated him for noticing this similarity, so he left with his esteem intact, plus two new words and, most importantly, some associative and comparative skills. Likewise, instead of ‘No, honey, that’s not grandma’, say ‘Yes, I can see why you think it’s grandma, she has the same hair color! Well done for noticing. Now how can you say that she is not actually a grandmother?’ I would go so far as to say that when it comes to everyday conversations with your child it is never helpful to answer by saying ‘No’ (unless of course you actually want them to stop talking!)
I have never had the conscience, or conscience, to sit down with Joshua to work on his vocabulary (can you imagine anything more boring?). Instead, I just use the opportunity of our daily chat to bring new, and more complicated, words. I ‘synonymize’ all the time! ‘Can you see all those people on this bus, love? How many passengers there are in this bus. Where do you think all the passengers on that bus are going?’ Without ‘teachy’, which is connected in itself ‘people-on-a-bus’ and ‘passenger’ and ‘traveler’. And it was great for flexing my own mental muscles too.
K and A
We try not to answer any questions for Joshua that he could answer himself. So if he says ‘what is in this pot mother?’ I do not tell him, but rather take the skin and say ‘What do you see in this skin? It helps him find words in his head and is fantastic for imagination (we have apparently many times cooked elephant food). ‘Where are these people going father?’ comes to the question ‘Where do you think these workers could travel for my boy?’ It should also be known that this technique fails on some occasions. When we’re tired, or sick, or sick-and-tired, we’ll do whatever it takes to (a) speed up the journey to sleep (b) create some peace and quiet and/or (c) keep ourselves sane. . This, too, is allowed.
Babbling while boiling
If you have a particularly active child, who cannot sit still for half an hour than I can climb on one leg for half an hour, then it could be a challenge to spend a decent amount of time doing things (like reading or speaking. ) which develops vocabulary. We have realized the value of bath time in this respect. Up to a certain age, children are a captive audience during the bath and, as such, find it easier to follow a story or learn a song there because there is no option to run, climb, jump or crawl instead! Treat bath time as a very special window of opportunity for your child’s language development. From a very young age, we sang two rhymes to Joshua in the bath every night (Twinkle, Twinkle and Incy Wincy Spider) along with actions, funny accents and funny facial expressions. After about the millionth repetition (or so it seemed) he started copying us, not necessarily with the words (he was only 6 months) but with some of the basic movements and sounds. Since then, we have added to our repertoire – thankfully – but we still spend most of our time in the bath singing or telling stories. If you have more than one adult in the car at a time, the same can be true for the time while your child is strapped into a car seat.
In essence, fostering a love of language in your child is more important than working on actual skills. The basic recipe for this – as it usually is with children – is a foundation of autonomy and respect with a liberal sprinkling of fun. Fullstop.
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