Infants learn about language before they can speak it, according to research conducted at Cornell University’s Department of Human Development. That means a parent’s communication approach can affect a baby’s language development in their first two years. It also suggests a new way to think about “baby talk.”
According to Krystal Revai, a medical director in Medical Policies and Operations at Aetna, “Infants learn language skills at a very early age, so how you interact with them begins to matter from Day One. When you talk to them, make eye contact. This is called child-directed communication; it helps with bonding, focus and learning.”
In fact, researchers at Stanford University found children who experienced more child-directed speech had larger vocabularies by 24 months, compared to those with less child-directed speech. It appears that the more a parent talks to their baby at a young age, the greater the opportunity the child has to develop language skills and build vocabulary, according to the Stanford study.
“Parentese” versus baby talk
How words are spoken also plays a role in language development. “Parentese” uses real words spoken in a melodic tone, similar to a sing-song speech. Revai notes that our traditional idea of baby talk is a different way of communicating with babies: it involves made up words and replicating noises made by a baby.
Various studies, such as a joint 2014 study by researchers at the University of Washington and University of Connecticut, have shown babies have a positive reaction to parentese because it involves variation in pitch and sounds. The study also found one-on-one engagement with a baby while using parentese advances language development.
A child’s age determines generally when parentese is more helpful for language skills. Between 4- to 6-months, a baby begins to make monosyllabic single vowel sounds, or what adults call “babbling,” Revai said. It’s at this age when a baby will say “baba” or “mama,” or some variation of names for a parent.
Children between 4 to 6 months old will begin to make single vowel sounds. By 1 year, they can begin making word associations.
“It’s OK to mimic these words at that point for them because you’re reciprocating. Parents will frequently find if they say, ‘Mama,’ the baby will repeat,” Revai said. “The baby is mimicking and realizing this is a good thing to do and it’s fun.”
Once the child is a 1 year old, sounds begin to represent words. Because of this, Revai emphasized the importance of using full words in sentences so the child can learn the meaning of the word.
While a child is learning different words, they may shorten a word and create their own pronunciation of it. For example, water may become “wa-wa” or spaghetti might be “spagebbi.”
As tempting as it can be, Revai cautioned about not repeating what the child says in these situations. “When the child starts to mimic a word in their own way, that’s when a lot of parents fall into repeating what the baby says. Instead of repeating the baby’s word, use the correct one in its place. Eventually your child will develop the language skills to pronounce letters and words that they may have struggled with like r’s and q’s.”
Tips for a good start
Cornell University’s Department of Human Development offers these tips for parents to help their child develop strong language skills:
- Explore books and read to your child early and often. It’s never too early to start to read to your infant.
- Label objects with words.
- Use words to describe your actions and to describe the child’s actions