Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Language Development & Baby Signing

Parents are usually very excited when their baby utters its first sounds. Since all people need communication to thrive, babies are no exception. Parents can do much to help their baby learn to vocalize, and it's a rewarding process for all. Although the age of first words varies from baby to baby, it usually happens within the first two years and then progresses rapidly. Very soon after birth babies begin to listen as parents talk, and they learn to distinguish the parents' voices from that of others, as parents also learn to distinguish the baby's voice from that of other babies. By 1 1/2 years, babies usually know about 50 simple words. By 2 years, they know 4 to 8 times as many words as before. Language develops from that point very rapidly, with 4-5 year olds knowing several thousand words.

There are different psychological theories on how babies learn language. The behaviorists, such as Skinner, believe that language is learned from the environment; this is also known as social interaction. Thus, when parents talk, babies listen and repeat. Parents reinforce the utterings of babies by praising, smiling, and acting very happy to hear the baby vocalize. However, critics of the behaviorist theory say that babies have not heard all the sentences they speak; they put together new phrases all on their own.

Nativist theory, which is based on Noam Chomsky's research, is that language is based on an innate blueprint, present at birth. This blueprint contains the basic rules of grammar, and the child just has to hear his native language and practice fitting it into the blueprint. After puberty, languages cannot be learned without an accent, but babies can pick up several languages at once while they are young. Babies seem to recognize when language is not spoken correctly, and nativists believe that they are born knowing some of the rules. If language is innate, then why aren't babies able to speak at birth? Maturation stages are important for many physical tasks that children learn; a child has to be physically mature enough to learn certain tasks.

Babies experience an amazing rate of growth, both physically and cognitively. Piaget, the French child psychologist, believed that babies learned different tasks at different cognitive stages. Other constructivist theories of language development point to babies learning words from parents and generalizing to other similar words, such as learning that mom, dad, and baby are all nouns and the words behave the same in conversation.

No one is certain as to just how babies learn to talk, and it's difficult to do research with babies since they can't verbalize and don't remember their experiences later on when they can speak; most parents probably don't really care as long as their baby does eventually learn to talk. A new study by psychologist Michael Goldstein shows that babies vocalize more when their mothers pay more attention to them by smiling, touching, and other interaction. Goldstein first studied cowbirds; male cowbirds sing but females don't, although the females teach the males to sing. As he learned how the female cowbirds taught the males to sing by using varying degrees of attention, he developed the same type of study with babies, having some mothers pay close attention and talk to their babies, and other mothers interacting but not talking. The babies who were talked to by their mothers were more vocal than the ones whose mothers didn't talk to them.

Although most parents realize that talking to a baby is the best way to help him develop language, others don't seem to think babies are really understanding adult conversation. Talking to the baby, using words that babies first say, such as naming things around the house and yard, calling the names of family members and pets, etc. will help the baby distinguish those words when he begins to talk. When the baby starts vocalizing, parents should pay close attention, giving praise, smiling, and acting excited. If a parent thinks he knows what the baby is trying to say, he should repeat the word several times. After the baby begins to use simple words such as dog, cat, or baby, help him to expand his vocabulary by adding adjectives such as little dog, big cat, or nice baby. Although some adults seem to get very silly with babies and speak to them in "baby talk," even that can help babies learn to speak. Most babies are very interested in baby talk, which is spoken by adults in a high, nonthreatening voice along with smiling and eye contact.

Reading to the baby is an excellent way to expose him to a variety of words. Picture books with simple phrases help baby connect the pictures with the words, and repetition is very important. Reading the same books over and over may be a little boring for a parent, but to baby it is comforting and educational. Babies who are read to by parents certainly have an advantage over those who don't get exposure to books at an early age. Children starting school for the first time who were never read to by parents, grandparents or older siblings will usually have a harder time than those who are familiar with books.

A recent movement among some parents is to teach young babies to use sign language. Babies of hearing-impaired parents are routinely taught sign language to be able to communicate, but hearing parents are now taking up the practice of signing with their babies. Babies who are too young to talk can learn to use simple signs to indicate what they need, what they feel, etc. While all babies learn some simple signs, such as waving bye-bye, pointing, the eensy-weensy spider song motions, etc, those of just a few months old can be able to communicate better with parents by learning signs.

Psychologist Oliver Sacks believes that humans first communicated with signs and talking came later. Learning American Sign Language is great for both parents and babies, and communication, even after the baby learns to speak, can be enhanced. Signs could still be used during quiet times when speaking out loud is not appropriate. Babies who learn signs are said by their parents to be less frustrated as they are better able to express their needs and desires to their parents. Imagine a baby being able to tell his mother he is hungry and wants some milk, rather than just crying. Any parent who has experienced the frustration of having a crying baby and not knowing what's wrong should welcome baby signing. For those interested in baby signing, there are many books, classes, and teachers now available on the subject.

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