Parenting / 27 February, 2019 / Dr Robert Titzer
Your baby’s early language environment is extremely important because the quantity and quality of the language or languages in your child’s environment will change how much your baby learns, and early language learning influences later learning.
After working in this area for decades and reading thousands of studies on language acquisition, infant learning, neuroscience, and psychology, I think these tips are some of the most important for early language learning. I also used these tips with my own babies.
Start by talking to your newborn baby in a loving, joyful manner and use the tips below to help your baby learn to understand your language(s). New research shows that infants’ brains develop more efficiently when learning multiple languages simultaneously compared to consecutively. Tips are different for babies who have not yet learned 50 words compared to babies and toddlers who have learned at least 50 words, it is important to change the way you talk to your baby as your baby acquires language skills. This means that these tips are not strictly age-based–they are also skill-based.
Use parentese when talking with your young infants. Parentese means speaking in a higher-pitched voice, elongating the vowel sounds, and slightly over-enunciating words. Babies prefer higher-pitched voices. By over-enunciating, you make it easier for your baby to differentiate spoken words. I suggest using mostly parentese until your baby is around 6 months of age, then gradually use less parentese. Once your baby understands at least 100 words, then it may be better to speak in a more normal voice most of the time.
A 2015 study shows that frequency effects are very widespread in language learning1. This means that if other factors are equal, then a higher frequency of language input led to additional language learning with individual words, simple syntax, verb endings, and more advanced syntax such as asking questions. I suggest intentionally using some words at a very-high-frequency level with young infants to help your baby learn her or his first words earlier. Think of words that you are already saying frequently to your baby based on your interactions with her/him, then repeat some of those words many more times a day. For the most part, select relatively concrete words to learn for these extremely-high-frequency words and demonstrate the meanings of the words numerous times throughout the day. Continue to use medium-frequency and lower-frequency words as well and, of course, continue to talk to your baby in sentences.
Talk about your child’s senses. Narrate or describe what your child is seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. Think of movement as a sense and describe how your child is moving. Do this as much as you can throughout the day. Enjoy the experience and bond with your baby while helping him learn language skills.
Allow language learning to be multi-sensory–instead of simply talking to your baby (where your baby only hears language), consider adding written language so your baby sees and hears words and sees and hears the meanings of the words. For example, allow your baby to see and hear the word hand, then touch one of your baby’s hands and say “hand” again at that precise moment. The reason to do this is because new brain connections will be formed during this experience and the more precisely you match the sensory information, the easier it will be for your baby to figure out the relationship between what you are saying and what the words mean. Babies who see language while hearing it have more information than babies who only hear words.
In normal speech, one word often flows into the next, making it difficult for infants to figure out that individual words exist. You can help babies learn words by saying some individual words, then showing or demonstrating the meanings of those words while using the word in a sentence. Allow young infants to see words at the same time they hear them to give your baby more information. Infants may be able to use this additional sensory information to figure out that individual words exist as well as where the words begin and end.
The shape bias is the tendency of infants and children (as well as adults) to generalise information about an object by its shape rather than its colour, material, size, or texture when learning nouns. Learning the shape bias is very important because infants who know it learn new words more efficiently. It can be taught to a 17-month-old infant in four 15-minute sessions and results in an increase in the vocabularies of infants and children2. The shape bias can be learned and is displayed when a child consistently uses information about the shapes of objects more than colour, size, material, or texture when determining the meanings of nouns.
Play in front of a mirror and teach body parts and do actions with your baby or toddler and talk about what you are doing. Ideally, there would be a mirror in a convenient location so you can do this frequently.
Use proper grammar in front of your baby and he will naturally learn proper grammar. I remember looking up irregular verbs to ensure that I used English correctly because I didn’t want my children to have to think about grammar. I wanted good grammar to be easy and natural for them. The way to do that is to use proper grammar when speaking to or in front of your babies and toddlers.
Allow your baby to hear and see other languages. If you speak another language fluently, this will be easy for you. If not, try videos in other languages so your baby can hear native speakers while seeing the meanings of the words.
Teach basic categories of words first. For example, “cup” is usually a category word. To teach “cup” you really want to teach the category of cup instead of making your baby think that the word “cup” refers to only one specific cup or type of cup. In order to teach the meaning of the word “cup,” show your baby many different cups that vary in size, colour, design, material, but all should have the same generalisable shape. Describe how the cups are similar and how they are different. For example, you could quickly describe each cup, “This is a big, white, plastic cup,” or “This cup is small and green,” or “This cup is tall and narrow and made of blue glass.” In addition, you would also show your baby objects that are similar to cups, but not cups. You could point to a cereal bowl and say, “This is not a cup. This is a bowl.” and say “This is a not a cup. This is a can” while pointing to a can. In addition, you would want to have many stereotypical cups included as well as some cups that are not stereotypical. This helps your baby learn the boundary of what is a cup and what is not a cup. Once your baby understands the word “cup” then you could also teach your baby a higher-level category such as “container” by showing a few cups along with many other types of containers. It is now simple to look up definitions of words and say them as you are teaching your baby words and this will help you teach your baby the meanings of words. You could also teach your baby that there are many different types of cups that have category names such as mugs or teacups.
Article by Dr Robert Titzer, The Baby Show and language development expert