“Come quick, I think he is about to say it again!” said the father as he frantically gestured for his wife to come by the baby. The baby boy looked up at both is parents and said, “Da-da”. Both parents looked excitedly at each other and in unison said, “His first word!”
Many infants say their first word around six months of age. However, the process that goes on behind the scenes that leads to the first word is complex and requires hundreds of interactions with the infant. The whole process is propelled forward by parents talking to their infants.
Babies are born with the capability of learning any language in the world and yet they don’t know words in any language. They start learning language as soon as they are born and hear languages being spoken. While babies can overhear background conversations, they do much better picking up language when people talk directly to them, particularly their parents.
When babies are very young, the conversation is one-sided with the parent simply talking to the baby. The baby talk is usually focused on whatever activity the parent is currently doing with the baby. Many parents may view this as simply talking to themselves but this is providing babies exposure to a variety of new words and the context in which they are used.
As babies get older and turn into infants, they start to coo and babble. The cooing and babbling are signs that infants are beginning to vocalize the language that they have been hearing and understanding the rhythms of conversation. Parents can help with this process by responding back to the cooing and babbling. When infants babble, parents can wait until they are done and then respond. Infants will pick up on these conversational patterns and use them in the future when they eventually talk.
When parents respond to their infants vocalizations and treat it like a conversation, they create a social feedback loop. The feedback loop encourages infants to vocalize more often and helps them to learn and expect responses to the vocalizations. Mothers tends to be more sensitive to infants’ vocal cues and overall they talk to infants much more than fathers.
Over time, mothers tend to talk to their daughters more than their sons. This is one factor that leads to girls acquiring language skills earlier than boys and to develop larger vocabularies, display better grammar, and talk more frequently. However, fathers’ conversations with their infants should not be discounted as it appears those conversations can have a significant impact on children’s eventual language development.
The key factor in language development in infancy is the amount of talk directed at infants by their parents. Children who are exposed to the most language during infancy tend to have higher cognitive skills and do better academically. This is due to the children having larger vocabularies and better grammar than children who were not exposed to as much language.
The form of talk directed towards infants can include conversations between parents and infants but it is not the only way to expose infants to language. Reading books to infants can increase their language and also can get them used to the structure of stories. In addition, parents can sing songs to their infants which get them use to the rhythm of language and also informs them about the world around them.
There are many ways to expose infants to language. The first step is to start talking and then to keep on talking.
This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on November 9, 2014.