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How Children Learn Language

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Many parents worry about their child's language development: "Is she on track?" "How can I help him learn?" "Will he be left behind?" But the truth is, you don't need flashcards or fancy electronic "teaching toys" to help children learn language. You just need to talk with them.

Language, of course, is a vital part of every child's growth. Language also opens the door for the two-way communication that helps kids learn everything from how to read to how to tie their shoes. Where does all that language come from? In this article, we'll discuss how and when children learn language... and some of the things you can do to help.

How Kids Learn Language

Children are born communicators. Even before they can speak, young children are quite skilled in getting their meaning across—whether it's crying to signal they're hungry, cooing when they're happy, turning their faces away from a food they don't like, or pointing at a toy that they want. These early sounds and gestures are simple forms of communication that lay the foundation for richer, language-based communication later on.

Just like adults who are learning a foreign language, young children usually understand more than they can speak. Child development experts make a distinction between what kids can understand (called "receptive language") and what they can say (called "expressive language"). It's easy to tell what your child can say; you just have to listen to her. But how can you tell what your child understands? One way is by observing how she reacts to the things you say.

For example, one of the first words that children typically recognize is their own name. Many children start to recognize the sound of their name when they're somewhere between 4 and 8 months old. You can tell when it happens for your child by gently calling her name and seeing whether she turns to face you. But make sure she's really reacting to the name, and not just to the tone or the sound of your voice. My wife and I were very excited when our oldest son, Nachum, first turned at the sound of his name... and we were very amused when he did the same thing when I said other two-syllable words in the same singsong tone. (He really started to react to his name, rather than my tone of voice, a few weeks later.)

Once children get going, they learn language incredibly quickly. Not long after their first birthdays, children usually start to say their first words. But by the time they're roughly 20 months old, many kids learn as many as nine new words every day—more than 250 new words every month! And when they're about 2 years old, children often hit another milestone: They start to combine words into two-word "sentences," like "more doggie" (which can mean "I want to play with the dog some more" or "Look! There's another dog") or "all gone milk" (meaning either "I finished my milk" or "I knocked my milk cup off the high chair").

 
 

 
 
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