Language is a great communication system. Through language, humans can express logical reasoning, grief, happiness, wishes, descriptions, and a rich array of other feelings and ideas. Every baby deserves the gift of language power!
Responding to Sound
In the early months, babies' brains are admirably wired to respond to sounds of all the world's languages. Researchers discovered that when they provided infants with a nipple that records sucking, the babies sucked when they heard a new sound. Then they got bored, tuned out, and decreased sucking. But if a different sound was played, they sucked more vigorously in order to hear that new sound.
After 6 months of age, babies begin to tune out sounds that are not in their home language. At this point, they can no longer distinguish those sounds. Producing those different sounds many years later while learning a foreign language in school can be a struggle. A child over 10 years will probably always speak the new language with an "accent." However, if one teacher speaks a language, such as Mandarin, and another speaks a different language, babies will continue to tune into the different sounds of each language and learn that other language, too. Research has shown that when a Hispanic father lovingly talked for about one-half hour per day to his baby, even though the mother spoke English to the baby all day, the baby still understood and responded to many Spanish words and phrases as a 1-year-old.
In the earliest weeks, babies coo with throaty sounds. By 4 months, they begin to make consonants, particularly those that are easiest for them, such as mm, nn, dd, and pp. When babies add a throaty vowel, they produce sounds such as "mama," "papa," and "dada." Proud family members often respond to these duplicated babbles with delight and call themselves "Papa" or "Nana," turning these early babbles into true words!
By the end of the first year, babies babble unduplicated strings of sound combinations. They use intonations so that adults feel as if babies are conversing. Listening to these long strings of "jargon," adults can often hear a distinct word, such as "doggie" or "daddy." Language production has begun!
Between 1 and 2 years old, toddlers become able to put two and three words together. This telegraphic speech may be hard for adults to understand. Of course, when a toddler snatches a peer's toy truck and announces "My T'uck!" teachers know that this toddler certainly does understand the concept of possession.
Playing with Words
Lying in their cribs, infants and toddlers play with sounds. They create combinations of consonants, such as "nth" that adults find hard to pronounce. Toddlers sometimes play with words and rhyming sounds. This reflects their fascination with this new power to produce language sounds with and without meanings. This new power also gives much pleasure to the baby who is practicing interesting intonations, snatches of songs, and even nonsense syllables. How proud a baby is to be the "producer" of language now, instead of just listening!
Long before babies produce their first words, they show how much they understand the adult language. "Do you need a tissue, honey?" the teacher calls out as she sees Dwayne's drippy nose. Dwayne toddles over and pulls a tissue from the teacher's pocket. By 1 ½ years, if a teacher asks "What does a cow say?" many babies answer "Moo-moo" enthusiastically.
Here are some activities to try to help babies build language:
• Respond with interest to a tiny baby's coos. Hold a baby's bottom and his wobbly head, too. Look into the baby's eyes. When he emits a throaty vowel cooing sound, smile delightedly and respond gently, "I love to hear your talking, honey. Talk some more!" Wait and give the baby a chance to respond to you with more coos. When he's has had enough of this back and forth game, he will let you know by turning his head away.
• When infants begin to point to things they are noticing-share their interest. Look in the direction of the pointing finger and tell the baby that you see the same interesting ball rolling on the floor, or you also see the rabbit in his cage. If a baby points to a toy he wants you to take down, assure him you do understand and thank him for "telling" you in babbles what he wanted. Shared attention is a powerful tool for enhancing baby language.
• Label toys, foods, books, and other items found in the infant room.
• Do simple chants with babies. "Open shut them, open shut them" is a finger game that babies enjoy before they are a year old.
• Toddlers love chants and rhymes. Try the hand motions that go with "The wheels on the bus go round and round." Toddlers who are shy or somewhat slower in producing language often start to chant and sing if you enthusiastically model all the hand motions. Toddlers brought up in bilingual or trilingual households may be slower at producing words, but their rich language experiences give a boost to their intellectual development.
• Toddlers who are monolingual enjoy producing strange sounds. They will join in singing "Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques,-dormez vous?" enthusiastically. Sure, the words come out in garbled French, but toddlers take pleasure from these new, strange musical sounds strung together rhythmically.
• Be alert to the meanings of two- and three-word phrases toddlers use. Do they use questioning intonations only? Can they ask "Who dat?" or Whazzat?" to get you to tell them about a new person or object? Respond to toddler "telegraphic speech" cheerfully even when you are not sure you have guessed the toddler's meaning!
• Toddlers love silly sounds. Read them the made-up silly rhymes from books such as those by Dr. Seuss.
• Some older toddlers love tongue twisters. Some even try to pronounce the complex names of dinosaurs! Sprinkle your vocabulary with some tongue twisters and toddlers may giggle delightedly.
• Toddlers often find the form of riddles funny even though they do not "get" the reason for mirth the way preschoolers do. Try some "knock-knock" jokes. For example, "Knock-knock." "Who's there?" "Orange" At the end of many repetitions of this "dialogue," the teacher finally says, "Banana! Aren't you glad I didn't say orange?" Toddlers roar with laughter and even roll on the floor at the cadences of this humorous form, even though they may not understand the punch line the way older children do.