Language development starts from the minute the child is born. As a Speechie mom, I understand the importance of parent-child communication and that believe it or not, there is a variety of language facilitation strategies available for infants! I’m also constantly thinking about ways to encourage communication in my child. It’s fascinating that we are all born with an innate desire to communicate and through interactions we realize how powerful communication abilities can be. Yup, even the kids with autism who are often misunderstood as introverted or hermits (they want to communicate and interact with others; they just don’t know HOW).
When Benji was born, he interacted with us mostly with eye gazes and cries. Then he started grinning, although not in response to anything but slowly learned that a grin or laugh would get him a lot of attention and therefore gave us more and more of these magical moments. We also learned that Benji had different cries tagged to various needs: hunger vs discomfort vs weariness. In the last few weeks he also started cooing and gurgling, doing it mostly when he is happy and in a playful mood.
How should parents react to these communicative intents to encourage more vocalizations? I strongly believe at least for the first years, that the more the child is able to vocalize, the better. He is exploring his vocal cords and different ways to interact and the more he experiences it hopefully the quicker he will pick up speech sounds, and eventually, the nuances of social interactions…all of these should hopefully have a domino effect on acquiring language, which is the foundation to reading and writing.
Here are some of my recommendations and what I’ve been doing a lot with Benji so far:
– Imitate your infant’s vocalizations: everytime Benji coos, I try to respond with either human speech, like “Oh I like the way you’re cooing/talking.” “Hello, good morning!” or an imitated coo. I also gurgle back when he does it. Lately, I’ve been doing more turn taking with him — I only coo back after he’s done cooing. It’s like we’re having a conversation, infant style. This can be an excellent game to “teach” or reinforce conversational turn-taking. A lot of infants/kids learn this naturally by osmosis, but it doesn’t hurt to reinforce this skill!
– Do lots of self-talk: When I’m busy doing household chores while Benji is in his play gym or on his bouncer, looking/observing my moments, I take that opportunity to talk to him and explain to him what I’m doing, as this will expose him to different words in context. E.g., when I’m cooking, I’ll tell him what I’m doing: “Oh, look, I’m chopping up the veggies, I have green broccoli, spinach, …” This takes a lot of effort to do initially as you have to multitask but just imagine talking to a friend while you’re cooking – similar set of skills. And God has blessed us women with the ability to multitask!
– Provide good eye contact and respond to your infant’s facial cues like smiles/cries: When I talk to Benji, I give him my fullest attention to reinforce listening and speaking skills.
– Try to be more animated in your speech but not use too much motherese talk or baby talk (like shortening words, e.g., saying “nana” for “banana”): this is so hard to NOT do because we’re too used to “cute-ning” our voices when speaking to a baby and, thinking that they cannot understand or hear words that are more than two syllables, keep shortening those nouns. It’s not good for language development! I try my best to speak to Benji in a slower rate, and with a more exaggerated prosody, but very rarely do I shorten words. Also, lisps and saying “wabbit” for “rabbit” are incredibly cute but DO NOT use them with your kids. The key here is modeling good speech for them. We always talk about modeling good behavior; speech is no different. Even if your child says a word incorrectly, do not imitate them. Rather, simply say the correct version of the word and try to have them say the correct form back to you.
– READ to your infant: it’s never too young to start reading. We have been reading to Benji since about week 7. Initially, his attention span was way too short to get through one or two pages; he also had not developed the ability to see different colors, so books were not as engaging as they could be. However, once he could see colors and got the hang of books, it looked like he was actually quite interested in them. He would track my finger as I point to different things on the page, and he would sit quite still as if paying close attention to my reading of the book. Tis very encouraging! Reading to your child also exposes him/her to a different tone of voice as we tend to speak slightly differently when reading vs conversing. Again, he/she also gets to hear different types of words that you may or may not use in your daily conversations.
– Sing to your infant: Most kids (and adults) songs contain rhyme and therefore are excellent for exposing them at an early age to basic phonological awareness skills (which are the precursors to reading and writing abilities). Songs also help develop a sense of rhythm in children and a different way to verbalize language as compared to reading and conversing. Songs also contain repetition, which infants and young children LOVE because it’s predictable and allow them to follow along the song. I try to sing to Benji at least once a day and try to sing the same few songs for a few days before introducing another one to the repertoire.
That’s all I have for now. In a couple months or so I will write more about language facilitation strategies and play based learning in infants. How else do you communicate or facilitate learning in your infant?? What are your thoughts on what I’ve been doing so far?