Thursday, July 28, 2005

Talk to Your Baby

I don't know about you, but when I was a new young mom, I felt this strong urge to talk to my newborn. I felt rather silly; after all, she couldn't understand me and she certainly wasn't anywhere near the age where she was going to talk back. Yet I persisted, day after day after day.

It was almost compulsive. And it wasn't baby talk, either. We "chatted" about daily routine, housework, politics, the family dogs and cats, the weather, and nearly any other topic that came to mind. It didn't matter who was listening; I talked almost nonstop to that little girl in private and in public. I included her in conversations and even paused a few beats to wait for her answer before responding to my own questions and comments. I even read out loud to the baby. We read the usual books for small children, but we also "read" the Readers' Digest and Better Homes and Gardens, Sherlock Holmes mysteries and a host of science fiction books.

I wasn't particularly lonely or lacking in adult conversation partners. And I wasn't losing my mind, though some around me doubted my sanity at times. In fact, I knew exactly what was going on and did all of this quite intentionally. Babies are born ready and anxious to learn language. They respond to the sound of the human voice and quickly learn to participate in "conversations" by reacting to those pauses where we give others a chance to respond.

The whole process helps little ones build the mental framework that will later help them actually understand and later use language themselves. The more language they hear from the earliest moments onward, the better equipped they are to learn to talk.

Try it with your own baby. Position the infant where he or she can easily see your face. Carry on an animated conversation. The topic doesn't matter! All that matters is that you handle it like you would if you were talking to another adult. Make statements. Ask questions. Wait for responses. Follow the natural rhythms of conversation. It won't be long before your baby is smiling and gurgling as if on cue! You can ask what the little one thinks of the current foreign policy, and baby will "talk" back! Actually, it can be kind of fun....

Babies are not born understanding language. They are sort of a blank slate that we adults can focus and shape. Did you know that infants around the world make the same sounds? They all are born making all of the speech sounds in all of the languages. As they hear the language of their homes, however, they start to narrow down this speech set and focus on the sounds they will need for their own language. They can do this most efficiently if they hear lots and lots of language around them. Babies also understand language long before they can answer back. This learning also takes place more easily if they are hearing lots of language throughout the day.

And avoid that "baby-talk," PLEASE! It's not particularly helpful to baby's growing understanding of the language to hear about the "wittle itty-bitty doggie-woggie." In fact, it might even hinder the process.

I don't know if those early discussions were the only reason, but I'm sure that they contributed to the age at which all of my daughters spoke their first words. Like clockwork, each girl poppped off that all important first word at nine months of age. They were speaking in sentences remarkably early, as well.

So talk to baby. Read to baby. Sing to baby. Surround baby with as much language as you possibly can. Know that you are fostering neural connections that will be vital to language development no matter when you hear that first word.

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