Monday, November 12, 2012

Learning to Talk

My baby is learning to talk. He's taking it slowly, like his brothers did, but judging from how verbal and bright they are now, at six and almost-four, I'm not worried. So let's talk a little bit about how babies learn to talk.

The young human mind is incredibly adept at learning a language. We are hard-wired to learn to talk, and at least up until about puberty, most of us have a remarkable facility for picking up languages, nuances of sounds and grammar, syntax variety, and so on. Babies who are exposed to more than one language simultaneously while developing will very quickly learn to differentiate languages, know which one to speak with whom, and easily switch between the languages. I believe that people who grew up speaking more than one language also tend to be better at learning new languages when they are older.

But even for those of us who are sadly monolingual (or happily monolingual), watching a baby learn to talk is a miraculous experience.

Most babies will start to recognize certain combinations of sounds as familiar quite early on. Almost from birth, they'll recognize their mother's and father's voices, and the voices of other people who are often around. Some babies already recognize their own names by six months of age. By a year, many babies can recognize the names of people around them (Mommy, Daddy, siblings), some body parts, and simple directions like "up", "down", and "eat." By one year, in fact, many babies are already uttering some words, like "Mama" or "cup." I was at the park several months ago and heard a 10-month-old say "down" when he wanted his grandmother to take him down the slide.

By early toddlerhood, most babies can understand simple instructions, like "sit down" or "get your shoes." I remember very clearly that NJ, at 15 months, could understand, "Get Mommy's shoes." He would go to the closet, pull out a pair of my shoes, and bring them to me. I was suitably impressed.

Once a baby learns that an utterance (or sign!) has meaning, it won't be long before they start saying more words or making more signs. There will be a language explosion, and it will seem like every day they're using three new words.

It's important to remember that babies understand long before they can speak. My 14-month-old obviously understands quite a lot. He understands "Grandma is here!" or "Say 'night-night' to your brothers," or "Where's your duck?" (in the bath). He understands "Time to take NJ to school." I know this because he'll very excitedly toddle over to the stroller and climb in! Even though he doesn't say any words yet, he is very definitely learning language!

I mentioned in my "Breastfeeding a Toddler" post a couple of weeks ago that I had taught GI a sign to use when he wanted to nurse. Making words with your mouth is actually quite complicated and involves fine motor skills to get your tongue, cheeks, lips, and throat in the right position to create the vowel and consonant sounds you need, in the right order, to form the word. I watch my almost-four-year-old still work very hard to say certain words clearly. He has to remember how to make each sound, in what order, and move smoothly from one sound to the next. Speech therapy helped him a lot with this, and I see how he'll stop to think about what sounds he needs to make and ready his lips and tongue accordingly. It's kind of cute. His speech clarity has improved markedly in the last year, and while he still has a cutesy "toddler-esque" feel to his pronunciation, and a pronounced lisp besides, it's encouraging to know that he's working it out. Which brings me to the value of sign language for a young toddler.

Babies develop the fine motor skills in their fingers and hands before their lips and tongue are able to form the complex shapes for the sounds of language. By teaching them a few signs, they can learn to express needs before they can accurately form the words verbally. GI even tries to work out new signs for himself when the two signs he has don't prove adequate. He couples this with pointing and an earnest "uh uh uh uh" to let me know he's desperately trying to communicate something to me.

Also, on Friday, he very clearly said "more!" when he wanted more of something. He only did it twice, and he's back to signing instead of speaking, but I know it's coming. That verbal explosion will be here within the next few months, and then there will be no stopping him. Neither NJ nor SB said any obvious words until about 16 or 17 months, but once they started talking, they kept right on going, graduating to phrases and sentences in a remarkably short period of time.

How do you teach your child to talk? Simple. Talk to him! Give an instruction and then demonstrate what you mean. Narrate your day. "Mommy is going to buy some apples. Do you like apples? Here are some nice red apples. Let's put some in a bag and put them in the cart." There, you've taught him "apple", "bag", "cart," and eventually "red". You've taught him "put". You've engaged him by using a question, which has a different inflection than a sentence. You've referred to yourself and to him. So much goes into a simple sentence like "Here are some nice red apples!"

Even before you're certain she understands what you're saying, talk to her. I like to simply have a running commentary about whatever is happening around my babies. "Look, there's the kitty cat! Oh, he said 'Meow!' Can you say 'Meow?' He's coming over here. Mommy's going to pet the cat. Do you hear him purring? He likes when Mommy pets him. Do you want to pet him? Use a gentle touch. Nice. Open hand. Don't pull his fur. He doesn't like that. Pet nicely." It may feel odd at first, or even a little silly, but it's so valuable. And you'll know when they start to understand and respond to specific things you say. Suddenly, you'll realize that when you say, "Here comes the kitty cat!", she'll look around for the cat and smile when she sees him, or even point. And when you see that she understands, you can take it a step farther. "Do you see the kitty cat? Where's the cat?" and wait as she looks around. When she spots him, "You found the kitty! There he is! Do you want to pet him?"

My favorite is to play the nose-beeping game. Whenever he's nursing, and his face is so close to mine, and his little nose is just right there for the tapping, I press it and say "beep!" As he starts to understand, he'll anticipate and smile. Eventually, he'll return the favor, pressing my nose and waiting for the "beep!" Of course, always name the body part! "I'm going to beep your nose! Can you beep Mommy's nose?" Now he learns the word nose, and he learns where it is, and, eventually, he learns "your nose" versus "my nose." You can also teach body parts while dressing him. "I'm putting your shirt over your head. Okay, let's put your arm in. Where's your hand? There it is! Here are your pants. Put your foot in. Okay, stand up. Where are your shoes? Let's put your shoes on. Sit down. Where's your foot? Good job! Okay, other foot!"

Finally, once they do start talking, you can correct and enhance their language by repeating back what they say in a full sentence. If they say, "Want wawa," you repeat, "You want water? Okay, I'll give you some water." This shows that you are listening to them and acknowledging what they're saying while at the same time providing correct grammar and syntax and the correct pronunciation of the word.

Watching babies acquire language is so much fun, and it makes life easier in so many ways when you know they can understand you and, even better, when you can understand them. Toddlers present many other challenges, of course, but it truly is a magical time.

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