Babies and toddlers are great watchers and listeners. From birth, their favourite sound is that of their parents’ voices and their favourite eye candy is their parents’ faces. This fixation on the parent is also a crucial instinct that allows babies to learn to communicate and eventually use spoken language.
Babies start the long and miraculous process of learning language and communication from when they first hear your voice whilst in the womb. Babies respond to their mother’s voice around 20 weeks’ gestation.
From birth, the best thing you can do to help your child to learn to communicate is to communicate with him – a lot! Some parents think this is pointless or feels foolish as their baby can’t speak or respond like an adult or older child. Communication is a connection. It’s important to give and take. It’s attention and it really doesn’t always have to be words – it can be smiles, raspberry noises, lullabies, music, funny voices – whatever you feel like. It’s all part of your toddler feeling he has your attention and that’s what he loves.
A good way to think about talking to your toddler or baby is Serve and Return. Like in a game of tennis your toddler will send you a communication, a smile or a squeal or whatever. As a parent you acknowledge the communication by responding, either by copying, smiling or replying with words.
Research by Professor Jonathan Green at the University of Manchester on autism is attempting to see if teaching this attentive give and take to the parents of quiet, non-verbal babies may help language and communication development in autistic children.
Toddlers can use gestures, noises, and tone of voice before they can use language. Some parents will teach their toddler to sign or gesture a few keywords e.g., ‘more’, ‘milk’, ‘hungry’. This can really help toddlers who get a bit frustrated when adults can’t understand what they are trying to say. However, you don’t need to use a strict signing language, you can make up your own simple signs and just have fun with your baby. From as early as seven months your child will start to respond and understand simple hand and body gestures such as ‘No’, ‘Look’ etc. You can build on this over time and gestures really help your toddler communicate.
Action songs are a lovely way of learning words through physical actions. It’s so much fun for your toddler to sit with you whilst you’re singing an action song like ‘The Wheels on the Bus’.
Action songs are particularly valuable with late talkers as they can join in and communicate without using words.
Toddlers use their whole body to learn and movement and rhythm really facilitate learning and recognising words and songs. In addition, music is a universal ‘language’ that people love to listen to, share and sing together. You will often see your toddler’s face light up and look to you when you play his favourite song. This is a lovely early form of communication where he loves to share the experience with you. By singing and dancing together you are communicating and matching. Matching is a universal form of communication where two individuals connect by mirroring movements, body language, and sounds. It is particularly powerful for non-verbal toddlers who cannot express themselves with language yet.
The more you talk to your toddler the bigger, heavier and more interconnected his brain will grow. During a toddler’s first two years on earth, his brain will develop faster than it ever will again in his life. Talking with your toddler literally helps build his brain and facilitates social development, emotional development, and cognitive development. The National Literacy Trust even have a website called ‘Talk To Your Baby’ as they recognise that talking to your baby and toddler is the foundation of literacy, vocabulary, and even good mental health.
Through experience your toddler’s amazing brain will be laying down pathways and connections (called synapses) between neurons in the brain. These pathways will be laid down as he learns, and when the pathway becomes stronger and more complete, learning will be consolidated. It’s like he’s building a pathway through a field of long grass: the more times you walk a certain route the wider and more pronounced the path becomes. In time, the path is easy to see and use, and the route is faster and better developed.
Toddlerhood is a critical period when the brain is changeable and plastic. For example, if you say a new word once, it will register but won’t be remembered. I have noticed that a lot of parents instinctively say a new word three times in succession in different contexts, e.g.,
‘Look at the train on the track!’
‘Would you like to push the train?’
‘The train is a nice pink colour.’
This makes it easier for your toddler to hear the word ‘train’ in a stream of words. I am convinced that this instinctive three-time trick quickly allows toddlers to notice a new word and hear it.
You really don’t need to overthink talking to your toddler. When we use ‘motherese’ (baby talk) we generally speak to toddlers in an optimal and instinctive way. Sentences are simplified, words are repeated and our tone is generally positive, more high pitched and engaging.
If you expand the learning by not just saying the words, but also singing lullabies and doing action songs with your toddler the parts of his brain that deal with language will be stimulated in all these contexts.
The more pathways you have into a memory or concept – i.e. music, words, and even other senses like smell, which is perhaps the most evocative sense for recalling memories – the more solid that memory will be.
By the time your toddler is 12 months old he will probably have begun to point. This is a major developmental milestone. Pointing is a toddler’s first opportunity to get people to attend to something he sees. It’s a universal and powerful way of communicating in our species. If someone points, people look to where they are pointing.
We are the only animals that point and have whites to our eyes and one theory of our unique white eyes is that it allows other people to look at what we are looking at. Babies don’t get this immediately but will soon look where you look and read your emotions. It’s called social referencing and toddlers are very good at it.
One of the most wonderful aspects of toddlerhood is seeing your non-verbal baby become a talking toddler. Whilst it is helpful to compare your toddler’s language development in the context of that of his peers, most parents at some time or another worry that their toddler isn’t talking as much as some of their little friends.
Apparently Albert Einstein didn’t speak until he was three!
As with all development and developmental milestones, it is important to remember that all babies, toddlers, and children develop at different rates. That said, if you are concerned about your toddler’s lack of language it is really important to get him assessed and to rule out some potential problems, for example, that your toddler has a hearing impairment.
There is much more to language development and communication than vocabulary. By 18 months toddlers generally have around 20 words that they use. However, children can generally understand more than they can say, with about 50 words understood for every word that they can say. So you would expect your toddler to be able to follow simple requests before he can speak.
However, if you are concerned that your toddler doesn’t talk much, follow your instinct and have him checked out as this will not harm him. Leaving him if he does need help may cause him frustration if he cannot communicate.
First, you should ask your doctor or health visitor to refer him to your local speech and language therapist (you can also refer your toddler yourself). They will arrange to check his hearing and also assess listening skills, social skills, language comprehension, the words he uses and his sounding out of words.
Also, I CAN, the children’s communication charity, have a brilliant website that you can go to check your child’s language progress. They suggest games to play that help your child’s speech and language. You can also speak to an I CAN speech and language therapist on 020 7843 2544 in the UK to arrange a free call back or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Parents tend to worry a lot about their toddler’s language, partly as it seems so fundamental to their personality and their ability to relate to other people. However, parents tend to worry far too much about vocabulary and pronunciation, which are by no means the fundamental building blocks of communication and language development. It all starts with non-verbal communication and even seemingly ‘passive’ listening skills. Non-verbal communication skills include:
It is easy to take our language instinct for granted but without some form of language we would not be able to communicate with our loved ones, function in society, build relationships and social groups or learn. Even thinking requires language as you will use your learned language in part to allow you to think about people, the physical world, and even our internal emotional worlds. Language allows us to stand on the shoulders of giants and quickly comprehend millennia of thoughts, ideas and breakthroughs in science and philosophy.
If you are a multi-language family or household it is wonderful to share spoken stories, books, lullabies, rhymes and songs in all the languages you speak. This will really help your baby’s language skills develop, especially if you want him to speak and understand several languages.
Remember to include the whole family. Sharing books is really lovely for dads and other family members who can get very close to the baby by sharing a book. Oral tradition is the way that stories are handed down from one generation to the next. It really enriches a child’s experience to have many stories from different traditions from around the world. Stories from your culture and your baby’s grandparents really enrich his experience. It’s a lovely and important tradition to pass on songs and stories the way they have been passed on from adult to child for as long as people have walked the earth.
Even if you are just talking in English you can still share stories from around the world and the rhythm and culture can be enjoyed. (Usborne has a nice story book called ‘Stories from around the world.’)
Books with songs and nursery rhymes are full of rhythm and repetition and emotion, this really helps babies to learn language skills. They are also really fun to read out loud and you get to revisit the books you loved as a child. In turn, your toddler will develop a love of all the traditions and cultural stories that he is exposed to.
Green et al (2010) ‘Parent-mediated communication-focused treatment in children with autism (PACT): a randomised controlled trial.’ Lancet. Jun 19; 375(9732): 2152–2160. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(10)60587-9