Expert Articles

Keys to Support Your Baby’s Early Language Learning

Author: Qing LIU
Assistant Professor, Yew Chung College of Early Childhood Education

Language develops with an extraordinary speed in early years. At age one, your child starts to use single words to name familiar objects; only a year or two later, he/she can use diverse vocabulary into grammatically correct sentences, to satisfy needs, converse with others, and try out social rules. This period is what we call a “sensitive period” for language development. Those who learn a language beyond childhood will hardly become as proficient at any aspect of language as those who learn in childhood. So, infants are well “prepared” to acquire language, but as parents, are you ready to support your child’s language learning?

Here in this article, we will together explore what develops as infant preparatory skills that set the stage for the first words, how do children acquire so much in so little time, and in what ways parents can support early language development.

Babies begin to make vowel-like noises (“cooing”) at around two months old, which gradually becomes “babbling” (repeat of consonant-vowel combinations such as “nananana”) at around six months. But for babbling to develop further, babies must hear human speech. Input of human speech is essential for their brain to develop necessary nervous system for language processing. And through continuous exposure, babies will modify their babbling to include a much broader range of sound patterns like those in adult speech, some of which will transfer into their first words. 

As your baby’s first teacher, you can help his or her language learning and brain development. Try these simple tips and activities with your 2–4-month-olds in a safe way:

  • Respond to infants’ coos and babbles with speech, sounds, and words. This will encourage his/her experimentation with sounds that can later be blended into first words.
  • Respond positively to your baby. Act excited, smile, and talk to him when he makes sounds. This teaches him to take turns “talking” back and forth in conversation. 
  • Talk, read, and sing to your baby to help her develop and understand language.

Babies are natural communicators. They use a variety of conversational behaviours and communicative gestures to initiate interactions with caregivers. For example, newborns use eye contact to initiate interaction and terminate it by looking away. By three to four months, they start to gaze in the same direction where adults are looking. Around first birthday, they realize that adult’s visual gaze has a vital connection between the viewer and the surroundings, and they are eager to participate. This is where “joint attention” occurs, in which the baby attends to the same object or event as the adult. Infants and toddlers who frequently experience joint attention will sustain attention longer, comprehend and develop language skills earlier through age 2-3. 

Here are some more tips for your half to one-year-old babies:

  • Establish joint attention and comment on what the child sees. This will facilitate earlier onset of language and faster vocabulary development.
  • Play social games, such as peek-a-boo. You can cover your head with a cloth and see if your baby pulls it off. This provides experience with the turn-taking pattern of human conversation.
  • Repeat your baby’s sounds and say simple words using those sounds. For example, if your baby says “bababa,” repeat “bababa,” then say “book.”
  • “Read” to your baby every day by looking at colourful pictures in magazines or books and talk about them. Respond to her when she babbles and “reads” too. For example, if she makes sounds, say “Yes, that’s the doggy!” 
  • When your baby looks at something, point to it and talk about it.

Around one-year-old, babies extend their joint attention and start to point at objects while looking back to the caregiver, in an effort to direct adult’s attention. They get attention by pointing, reaching, holding up objects, and often making sounds at the same time. These gestures will gradually become more symbolic (e.g., flap arms to indicate “birds”) and integrated into more complex word-gesture combinations to expand verbal message (e.g., point to a toy while saying “give”). These “preverbal gestures” are the steppingstone to more advanced language constructions, predicting faster early vocabulary growth and earlier development of sentence structures.

Research shows that the more frequent the parents joined in babies’ activities, offered verbal prompts, imitated and expanded on babies’ vocalizations at early age, the earlier the children can attain major language milestones. Well, for your 1-1.5-year-olds, there are many more things that you can do:

  • Teach your baby to wave “bye-bye” or shake his head “no.” For example, wave and say “bye-bye” when you are leaving. You can also teach simple baby sign language to help your baby tell you what he wants before he can use words. 
  • Talk or sing to your baby about what you’re doing. For example, “Mommy is washing your hands” or sing, “This is the way we wash our hands.” 
  • Build on what your baby tries to say. If he says “ta,” say “Yes, a truck,” or if he says “truck,” say “Yes, that’s a big, blue truck.”
  • Respond with words when your baby points. Babies point to ask for things. For example, say “You want the cup? Here is the cup. It’s your cup.” If he tries to say “cup,” celebrate his attempt. 
  • Point to interesting things you see, such as a truck, bus, or animals. This will help your baby pay attention to what others are “showing” him through pointing.
  • Read to children often, engaging them in dialogues about picture books.
  • Show your child different things, such as a hat. Ask him, “What do you do with a hat? You put it on your head.” Put it on your head and then give it to him to see if he copies you. Do this with other objects, such as a book or a cup.

Talk with your child’s doctor and teachers if you have questions or for more ideas on how to help your child’s language development.

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Keys to Support Your Baby’s Early Language Learning