Long before that first precious word is heard, a little baby is preparing to learn to talk. The preparation time is almost a year, a year full of so much exciting physical development that the more discrete preparation for talking might be overlooked. Steadily and logically a baby explores his speech apparatus and the way it works.
Those first magical coos are an indication that he is discovering his voice. As he listens to the language around him a single coo slowly develops into a string of sounds with their own melody. That pattern echoes the melody or intonation of the language he hears. A baby listening to English will have his own melody which will differ from the melody of an Arabic baby or a German baby.
Not only is a little baby exploring sound, but is also exploring with his eyes. During the first few weeks, as his head control develops, he starts to stabilise things around him and starts to identify familiar people and objects. He develops eye contact, and that beautiful toothless grin is an early sign of his desire to communicate.
There is so much to learn. He could “hear” in the womb, but now he has to learn to integrate what he hears with what he sees and smells and feels. In a remarkably short time the baby turns to sound, showing us that he understands that people and objects have both a visual picture and an auditory picture, but they represent the same person or thing.
As his muscles develop the little baby learns to sit, at first with help, and later independently. At the same time the control of the muscles in his mouth is also developing. His tongue and swallowing mechanism are maturing and he starts to take baby rice and then pureed fruit and vegetables. He also discovers that if he moves his tongue at the same time he is using his voice, new sounds emerge. His lips can make a “w,w,w”, and his tongue, “y,y,y”.
It is a rare parent who can resist this verbal communication and a “conversation” starts between parent and child. As he watches his parents’ face as they mimic his early sounds, the little baby is discovering the power of verbal communication. The joy he delivers to those around him also ensures he has their undivided attention. He can make this smile, make them laugh, make them sing, make them play. The late Mary Sheridon once said to me, “Never again will he have so much power”. She was probably right.
Not only is the little baby exploring the physical tools he will need to talk, but also the auditory ones. As he listens to the language around him, certain phrases will appear again and again and again. Slowly he attaches meaning to these phrases and demonstrates he has understood them with a physical response, “clap hands”, “wave bye-bye”, “kiss mummy”. This comes before comprehension of single words which requires more sophisticated auditory discrimination. It also suggests that the melody of language carries the first meaning to our ears. How many of us have been in a foreign city with a school examination knowledge of the language, but nonetheless can understand enough of the communication without necessarily being able to translate the words?
As the listening skills develop, babies respond to nursery rhymes or join in with the actions. Old favourites such as “Round and Round the Garden, Like a Teddy Bear, One Step, Two Steps, Tickly Under There”, are enjoyed alongside an ever increasing number of new and international songs and rhymes. At this stage mother and baby might join a group, and a baby starts to learn he can play alongside other babies and enjoy their company. Their interaction will be predominantly physical, but they might use earlier language to communicate.
On a recent flight to visit her grandparents in New Zealand, my 10 month old granddaughter was trying to sleep on the aircraft, as were the other passengers. Their sleep was interrupted by a rather unhappy and noisy baby in the bassinet on the other side of the aisle. Apparently Willow sat up in her bassinet, shouted at the other baby, who immediately stopped crying, and all was peaceful. Apocryphal? Maybe, but it is certainly an example of a 10 month old using language effectively to control her environment.
As the early babble intensifies, the baby starts to find more and more vowels and consonants as the movement of the tongue becomes more sophisticated. At the same time he is almost certainly exploring more textures in his food and managing small lumps.
The number of phrases he can understand extends, and young mothers will say he understands everything. Some children learn to understand a very large number of phrases within their environment before they learn to understand single words. Others move more quickly towards single word recognition.
The pattern of language development as demonstrated by Noam Chomsky is international. A few years ago I met a psycho-linguist in Buenos Aires who had been researching the language of the island of Tierra del Fuego. His research upheld Chomsky’s theories. No little babies in Ushuaia had read these theories, but their language development followed the same pattern as babies all over the world. This of course has significant implications for the multi-lingual child – a subject for another article.
After approximately a year of exploration, listening, looking and understanding on the one hand, and moving and then learning to control the muscles of his mouth on the other, a baby is ready to use his first word. That word will be very dependent on the language he has heard and the meaning he attaches to it. If he has heard, “look daddy’s home from work, here is daddy, give daddy a big kiss”, there is a good chance the first word with meaning will be daddy. One of my favourite stories is of a little little boy whose mother was from New York, his father English. He spent some time in New York with his mother and American grandparents around his first birthday, and the first word that emerged in a very commanding tone was “taxi”.
When invited to write for Baba Blog I asked all the mothers who bring their children to see me what they would look for in an article. The answer was almost unanimous – What should I do to help my child learn to talk? In an age of child development by box ticking, parents are encouraged to look out for milestones and become anxious if their child is in some way behind his peer group. All people are different in their acquisition and use of language and all babies are different. Their development will be determined by the genetic pattern (Uncle Fred was slow to talk but now he’s a Professor of Astrophysics), and their pre-linguistic in a linguistic environment. Parents have no control over the first, but significant control over the second.
Our modern world is an increasingly visual world, iPads, TV cartoons, mobile phones with combining cameras ensures that children have a host of visual stimuli. Often auditory stimuli are at best overlooked and even ignored. The child who does not hear sound will not identify it, and therefore not attach meaning to it. The child who does not hear meaningful language will not learn to understand it and then not use it.
So the question to ask, and indeed be answered, is how do I optimise my baby’s learning environment?
From the earliest days a baby needs to hear spoken language. We have seen how he imitates the intonation of his mother tongue, and therefore he needs to hear sentences which model that pattern for him. Talk to him, talk to him about his immediate world, use short sentences with pauses to enable him to assimilate the sound.
Reduce, or where possible eliminate background noise. It is much easier to hear what is being said in a quiet environment rather than a noisy one.
Introduce your baby to music, join in with it. In the early days rocking him to the rhythm, then as he matures introduce him to actions that accompany the music, e.g. “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands”.
Introduce him to sound, “Listen, what’s that, it’s the doorbell, who could it be, lets go and see”.
Make time to introduce him to the world of sound. He is a newcomer, and like any newcomer he needs help in exploring his new environment.
Talk with him, imitate those early sounds to help him learn that language is interactive. Engage him with accompanying facial expressions. As his sounds develop encourage him by copying them and pausing to give him time to reply. Praise him, he needs to know that he is pleasing you by talking. Last of all give him an opportunity to meet other children of his age and possibly a little older to give him an opportunity to practice his skills.
Technical tools have their place, but they are no substitute for learning at a mother’s knee. I am seeing many children who are iPad competent and TV obsessed but have very little in the way of verbal comprehension and interactive language. There is a whole lifetime to learn IT, but those precious early days, when the foundations for learning language are put down, can never be replaced.
By Valerie Savage at Pinero House, 115A Harley Street, London W1G 6AR