How to talk to my baby to maximize learning opportunities (a Nurture-Science post)

This last fall I decided to try something new with my blogging and I volunteered to start writing for a new blog collaborative project called Nurture-Science. Unlike all other posts you see here on my WP site, the posts I’m writing for NS are peer reviewed by the editorial team at NS. As you can see if you click over to the site, the project aims are near-and-dear to my heart in that the site organizers, like me, aim to make useful psychological scientific information freely accessible to all comers. While the site is still under construction, I thought I’d share my first few contributions here on my own site, too. My regular readers will notice some differences between my regular posts and my Nurture-Science posts, namely my NS posts are shorter :), and include traditional scientific references. I expect all else will read in a familiar tone. I hope you enjoy these and that you’ll keep your eye on Nurture-Science too, as the site continues to fill in with useful information carefully crafted for everyday readers looking for solid advice.

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(Early Fall, 2018) — I recently returned from a big family gathering where 4 generations were housed under one roof, together, for a week. The youngest in the crowd was 10 months old, and the oldest, well, let’s just say there were some great-grandparents present, as well. As I reflect on all the happenings of our lively time spent together, I find myself thinking about how all the parents and grandparents present interacted with that sweet, chubby cheeked, easy-going little baby. Right on schedule, this little one was babbling, gesturing, making faces, and melting all our hearts. The behavior of the adults around her (the baby) varied quite a bit. Some of the adults mimicked her babble and one-upped her volume, some responded to her with “conversational” child-directed speech, and others shushed and soothed her. Some told her she was “loud” and others sought out what she gestured at, but kept their own vocalizations to a minimum. Some “pretended” conversation, some incited emotional reactions (e.g., surprise, laughter), and others were just present, quietly making eye contact and sounds, but not words. In the moment, the baby’s needs were always met. What a lucky baby she was, to have so much nurturing!

Standing back from my recent experience, I find myself mulling over the rich information in developmental science that explains the development of complex cognitive skills like language and memory. Whereas language development is remarkably consistent across cultures and can happen without direct instruction, the kind (i.e., quality) of adult interactions babies experience can also promote and nurture the developmental process. That is, there are “richer” ways to talk to a baby, ways that can promote their language development, their social skills, and their memory skills too.

Research hasn’t answered all our questions about the nature of language development (e.g., Kuhl, 2004; Tomasello, 1998), but we do confidently know quite a bit. For example, we know that the cognitive skill of language develops in a universally ordered fashion. Babies around the world — no matter what language is (or languages are, as the case may be) spoken around them – follow a remarkably consistent pattern of development (e.g., Kuhl, 2004; 2016). For example, all babies start experimenting with sounds between 3 and 4 months of age; at this stage in their development, their vocalizations are referred to as “cooing,” because that’s what it sounds like. Once babies start to coo, more varied babbling soon follows. In this next phase of their development, their babbling is quite flexible, in that many different sounds are experimented with. By 6-months of age though, babies’ babbling starts to resemble the language system they are immersed in (e.g., for a more comprehensive look at this timeline of development, see Bjorklund & Causey, 2018 or Kuhl, 2004). The process of culling sounds is thought to be an innately statistical one wherein the most frequently heard sound combinations are then the most frequently (and eventually easiest) repeated (e.g., Kuhl, 2004).

However, the sounds babies start with are predictable too, based on how easy it is for babies to actually make the sound. For example, babies in English speaking households usually say “dadadada” before “mamamama” because the consonant of “d” is easier to pronounce than the consonant of “m.” Though the developmental pattern of babbling is quite consistent and naturally motivated (i.e., it will happen whether adults try to nurture it or not), we also know that there are ways of interacting with babies in this time frame that can enhance their development. As well, we strongly suspect that when a developing baby’s skills are nurtured gradually and progressively, the benefit is long lasting.

So, back to the question posed at the start of this entry — How should I talk to my baby to maximize (later) learning opportunities? – Here are some empirically based recommendations.

  1. Use infant directed speech. Babies tend to prefer adult verbalizations that are softer, briefer, and that demonstrate exaggerated sing-songy tones. In fact, very young infants react with emotion to the melodic tone of adult language directed at them, not the meaning of the words. Kind words spoken in an angry tone can make a baby cry, whereas unkind words spoken in a loving tone can make a baby smile. The ideal combination though, of course, is to speak kind words in a melodic tone.
  2. Catch your baby’s eye when speaking to them. Typically developing babies respond in kind to adult speech when the adult is making a non-verbal connection with them. The simple act of catching your baby’s eye teaches your baby that “conversation” is a social action, and one that can boost and maintain positive emotion.
  3. Respond to your baby’s babbling with actual words. Current research is showing that babies’ developing brains are registering the frequencies of sounds in the languages they are immersed in, culturally. The more you expose them to the language they will eventually come to speak, the easier it will be for them to speak that language well and clearly.
  4. As you respond to your baby’s babbling, pretend you are having a conversation. When your baby pauses, jump in with a statement. When you notice your baby starting to babble again, pause your response to let them “have a turn.” Keep the give and take going, so that you and your baby go through the motions of conversation. The simple act of turn-taking establishes for your baby a template for social interaction and verbal give-and-take that will be of great benefit to them later on, when they begin interacting with other children in play groups, daycare, preschool, and the like. 
  5. When your baby points to or looks at an object, name it. Babies learn to comprehend language before they learn to speak it clearly and accurately. If you nurture their vocabulary by catching their eye, following their gesture or gaze, and then putting words to the environment, you are giving them a leg up for the time when they are ready to speak.
  6. Read to your baby. Time spent snuggling and reading to your baby provides them with additional exposure to language that sets the stage for later communication, social-emotional development, and literacy gains. Simple nursery rhymes are great because they exaggerate the sing-songy nature of language but any kind of child-friendly prose will do. In addition to providing your baby with a wider variety of sounds in your language (i.e., the vocabulary in books is often different than what’s spoken in the home), the time spent together helps forge positive social-emotional bonds with your baby, too. Finally, by experiencing book reading, your baby also starts to establish a script for “how to read” that will make actual reading come all the easier, several years down the road.

In the first year of life, when it comes to language, social interaction, and memory, babies are learning a tremendous amount. They learn more when speech is experienced face-to-face and when adult speech is linked to baby utterances. That is, they learn more from personal child-directed speech than they do from ambient speech noise and they learn next to nothing from speech on screens. The more you can help babies socially and personally experience the rich sounds of language, emphasize and model for them the social and emotional benefits of conversation, and help them learn to match sounds (i.e., words) to the objects in their environment, the better off they will be as they leave their babyhood behind and enter into the toddler years. While it is important to note that there is no “one-way” to properly raise a baby, developmental science can help steer us towards nurturance that is most likely to promote healthy growth.  

References

Bjorklund, D. F. & Causey, K. B. (2018). Language Development. In Children’s Thinking, 6th Edition, by D. F. Bjorklund, & K. B. Causey, Sage: Thousand Oakes, CA. 346 – 397.

Kuhl, P. K. (2004). Early language acquisition: Cracking the speech code. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 5, 831 – 843.

Kuhl, P. K. (2016). Language and the social brain. In R. J. Sternberg, S. T. Fiske, & D. J. Foss, Scientists Making a Difference. Cambridge University Press: New York, NY. 206 – 209. 

Tomasello, M. (1998). Introduction: A cognitive-functional perspective on language structure. In M Tomasello, The New Psychology of Language: Cognitive and Functional Approaches to Language Structure. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. Mahwah, NJ. vii – xxxiii.

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