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July 18, 2017

Language dance: The importance of talking to your young child

Baby talk sounds like gibberish but plays a valuable role in speech development and should be encouraged by parents

It is so exciting when your newborn begins making little baby noises. Every coo gets chronicled. Every giggle seems like a gift. I remember when Killian started babbling, making those first precious sounds. I was in awe.

As he advanced in his language development my emotion continued to swell. I vividly recall my husband’s joyous expression when our son said Dada. And I will never forget the moment on the beach when he looked at me and said Mama. A child’s first words sound like a miracle.

At 9-months-old Killian makes most of the sounds of the alphabet and has started saying compound noises like Sh and Th. These days it seems like he is trying to speak in phrases and sentences, using lots of different letters and combinations. His words sound like gibberish but the inflection and intonation of his voice, the pitch and speed of his sounds and expressions on his face let us know what he is trying to convey.

Some of his baby talk has become very familiar to us. When Killian is happy or something is satisfactory he says "Geet," and when he wants to say "no," it sounds like Nine. Even though he is speaking words I cannot understand, I usually know exactly what he is saying.

There are stages to a baby’s language and speech development: cooing, laughing and babbling, baby gibberish and then real words. Throughout our son’s young life, my husband and I have tried to help him with his language development.

We learned that the best way to assist Killian develop his speech is to exercise our own. As author Tina Rosenberg wrote in The New York Times, “ the key to early learning is talking — specifically, a child’s exposure to language spoken by parents and caretakers from birth to age 3, the more the better.” Lucky for me, I love to talk.

There is a whole lot of baby talk in my house. We make up funny words or mimic Killian’s noises. But we spend most of our time talking to Killian as if he can understand all of the things we say. I narrate the events of our day, explaining activities like preparing lunch or changing a diaper. I read to him daily and always spend time encouraging him to observe the things around him – trees, toys, Mama’s feet, whatever.

I teach him by explaining colors and shapes, telling him the names of things around us and the noises animals make. Rather than keep my monologue internal, I share it with him. Most importantly, I encourage conversation with my son. We spend a lot of time in a language dance together.

"Stay and play. Dance with me. Stay and play." That is how Dr. Todd Risley explains language dance. He and a partner conducted a landmark, home-language learning, research project that followed children from 9-months to 3 years old, chronicling his findings in the book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.

Risley says talkative parents produce talkative children, nurturing the social ability for interaction simply by communicating a lot with their little ones. “What you can translate talkativeness into is a social ability for interaction and sustaining an interaction with the baby,” Risley said in an interview. “And the baby, of course, is motivated by sustaining the interaction with the parent.” Back and forth, back and forth. A conversation. A dance.

The findings of this study showed the more words a young child is exposed to, the better; the more in-depth conversations or complex language dance, the better.

The way parents talk to their very young children has a profound effect on their ability to learn. The study’s conclusion is children become either talkative or taciturn depending upon how much language dancing happens in their home. Talkative parents who engage in complex conversation with their baby, rather than just providing simple directions or statements, benefit that child’s learning immensely.

Talking to young children also helps them in other ways. According to Risley’s research, talkative parents provide more positive affirmations to their child. Positive reinforcement can have a big impact on a child’s emotional development. While all children, including my son, need to be disciplined and told “no,” I am conscious about encouraging and praising Killian throughout each day.

Any kind of talking to your child will benefit his development. Make that chatter a language dance with lots of words and complex ideas that invoke conversation, emotion, memory, feelings, questions and observations, and your child’s language development and ability to learn will profit.

If you need some additional guidance, talk to your pediatrician or try some of the things I do with my son.

 Talk to him all day long.
 Narrate the events and activities of our day and explain why we do things.
 Say more than just, "no." When correcting Killian, I provide context and an explanation.
 Mimic conversation by listening to him, responding and encouraging the same from him.
Act out both sides of our conversation: "Would you like your bottle? You say, 'Yes, please, Mama.' And I say, 'OK, baby, here you go!' And you say, 'Thank you, Mama!'”
 Name and describe the things around us, encouraging him to say different words.
Ask questions and help him find the answers.
 Read age appropriate books to him every day.

It is never too early to begin talking to your baby. Start when they are in utero! Keep chatting when they are a newborn and converse with them throughout their lives. Both parent and child will benefit from the language dance.

Do you engage in language dancing? What advice do you have for parents with little ones who are learning how to speak? Share your thoughts with me and other parents in the comments section below or Tweet me at @ThePhillyVoice and @KathleenEGagnon.

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