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Talk To Me, Baby: Improving Your Child's Language Skills

Expert tips to help your child’s developing language skills.

Key points

  • Popular trends marketed at "improving your baby's language skills" may come and go.
  • Linguistic studies on child language acquisition can clarify what helps and what doesn't.
  • Four research-based steps may help to improve your child's language skills.

With a new baby, it is a rite of passage for parents to worry about their adequacy as role models in the face of raising another human. How to keep them safe, what to feed them, and how to educate them well are chief among the thoughts keeping new parents up at night.

And, while keeping them safe and healthy may look a little different these days, giving them the tools to hone their linguistic skills remains surprisingly uncomplicated. But that is not usually the message we receive.

To baby-talk or not?

Trends to “help” a baby’s language development come and go with about the same frequency as bell-bottoms and skinny jeans—i.e., play Baby Einstein tapes, use sign language, and don’t forget to sing about ABCs and body parts at regular intervals. Even worse than the pressure to learn a new language or tune-up your vocal cords to communicate with your infant is the often-conflicting advice on whether you should use baby talk or only talk to them as if they were fully formed adults.

However, taking a look at what linguistic research can tell us about how to help babies develop their language prowess provides reassurance that most parents are probably already on the right track—and dispels some popular myths about what helps and what doesn’t at the same time. So here are some of the key things to know when facing down a babbling baby.

Talking points

First, the most important thing a parent can do to help their child’s language development is to talk to them. While parents don’t "teach" their kids to talk in any traditional sense, infants need a large amount of language data in order to figure out all the sounds, words, and rules that will make up their adult grammar. Both quantity and quality make a difference—the amount of talk and a rich range of vocabulary are key in predicting successful later language outcomes.

Second, babies don’t learn through imitation or correction of the type they encounter later in school. In fact, there is quite a bit of evidence that they can’t imitate forms that they haven’t yet acquired. For instance, a parent might say, "Daddy went to work," to which a child might respond, "Daddy go work." Even if a parent provides a correction like "Daddy went," a child will often just respond back with "Daddy go." Only once children have the idea of past tense and its relation to irregular forms do they fully unravel the clues about how their language does it.

 Public Domain Pictures/Pixabay
Parent-child interaction is key.
Source: Public Domain Pictures/Pixabay

And, just having access to it in their natural language environment is enough to get them to the right form. After all, few adults ever point out to their 2-year-old that -ed is used for tense-marking in English or that "will" means future tense. Instead, it is through facts children have experientially come to understand about the world, other words in a sentence that they already know, and their impressive data analytic skills that they figure it out and then start to use it when they are ready. So, don’t stress about correcting early errors—they are self-correcting entities.

Third, baby talk, or caregiver-ese, doesn’t harm your baby. In fact, most research suggests it has a very positive effect on children’s language skills. For instance, a recent study found that parents who received coaching on their infant-directed speaking style significantly increased their babies’ vocalizations and vocabulary acquisition. Other work found that the exaggerated acoustic patterns of baby talk help infants disambiguate the speech sounds of their language.

Not only do the simplified structures and hyper-articulated sounds provide easily accessible linguistic input to the child’s developing brain, but also the baby is learning crucial turn-taking skills. Caregiver-ese seems to increase social response, not just provide access to language data, which in turn can help their language skills.

Interaction is the key

This brings us to the final key point: Children need interactive language experience to acquire the forms and functions of language. Sitting in front of a TV or listening to French lessons on a CD will not help them learn either their native language or a foreign one. It is the social back-and-forth aspect of language and the situational clues a child can glean from a specific interaction at a specific place and from watching others in that context that seem to drive the linguistic train.

Figuring out how to nurture your baby so that he or she reaches their full potential is just part of the parenting package. Luckily, helping them get there is as simple as just talking to and socially engaging them. If only helping them navigate high school could be so easy.

References

Naja Ferjan Ramírez, Sarah Roseberry Lytle, Patricia K. Kuhl. 2020. Parent coaching increases conversational turns and advances infant language development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 117 (7): 3484-3491

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