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Language: An Essential Building Block for Learning

One of the most important skills a child needs to develop in the early years is language. It is a critical building block for learning. Children need ‘serve and return’ interactions with adults, right from the start. In fact, the latest neuroscience research tells us that a child’s language development actually begins in utero. We now know that babies that are a few hours old can differentiate sounds from their native language and a foreign language. Babies, only a few hours old also have a wonderful ability to copy an adult poking out their tongue. This is evidence of a ‘mirror neuron’ and shows us how babies, even those only a few hours old, are observing what we do and say. The brain is primed to learn language from the moment a child is born, so it is never too early to start.

Language Gap by 18 Months

Differences in children’s language skills emerge by the time a child is 18 months and these differences continue and widen over time. There are notable differences between children aged 18 months in terms of the size of their vocabulary. Research has shown that those children born into families with high education and income have significantly larger vocabularies than those children born into families with low education and income levels. Therefore, it is critical that we build children’s language skills form the day they are born.

Sensitive Periods:

Research suggests that there is a ‘critical’ or ‘sensitive’ period for children to easily acquire language: the first 3 to 4 years are vital. Typically, a child’s capacity to learn a language peaks between 6 and 9 months of age, when they are understanding language and just beginning to babble.  During the first four years, children can easily acquire language if they are exposed to the right types of experiences. We are not talking here about using Baby DVDs and flashcards to teach your child to read, as both of these pursuits have been shown to be fruitless. Instead, parents can do simple things.

So what can parents do?

The good news is that it is NOT difficult to build your child’s language. You don’t need special programs, DVDs or flashcards. You need a small amount of time each day, in fact no more than 15 minutes is really required. Here are some simple ideas:

  • Babies and toddlers under 2 years of age need ‘face time’ and limited use of passive ‘screen time’ (i.e. TV and DVDs). In the first year if life in particular, it is critical that we limit the amount of passive screen time young children we expose to children. Babies need real interactions with adults where they can observe facial expressions, watch how sounds are formed and engage in serve and return interactions (remember that they can copy someone poking out their tongue when they are only a few hours old). If you use screens with young children, try to use interactive activities such as apps that encourage the use of language and expose children to different words and vocabulary (future blog post with suggestions to come).
  • Sing, talk, read and play with your child everyday. Research suggests that a focused 15 minutes per day is enough explicit time to build your child’s language skills. If you are after some ideas for songs and nursery rhymes check out http://ele.fredrogerscenter.org where you can search for songs and rhymes.
  • Right from the start, talk to your baby about what you are doing. For example, explain that you are changing their nappy, or talk about what you can see when you are in the car. It really doesn’t matter what you are saying, so long as they are hearing words.
  • Use parentese- this is the high-pitched, song-pitched and slow-paced way we often talk to babies. Research has shown that this communication is appealing to babies and helps them to learn how language works.
  • Ask children questions and talk to them when performing simple, daily tasks like setting the dinner table or doing the groceries, or discuss what is happening on TV when you are watching it together.
  • Extend children’s language. If they are saying two word utterances like “more milk”,  model how to say 4 word phrases such as, ”More milk please Mumma.” Whatever language skills your child is demonstrating, try to model the next level.
How do you build your child’s language skills? What works for you? I’d love you to share your ideas below.

I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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