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").
When Kids Learn Language
Children vary widely in the ages when they learn language. Some kids begin very early, while others may seem to start late but soon explode in a rush of words. As a result, it's hard to pinpoint a specific age when every child can be expected to hit a particular stage of language learning. However, most children reach the basic language milestones within a couple of months of one another. If you have questions or concerns about your own child's language development, be sure to bring them up with his health care provider.
Here's a checklist you can use to keep track of your child's accomplishments at different ages:
Does your child:
__Turn his head when you gently call his name?
__Make babbling sounds, like "ma-ma," "da-da," or "ba-ba"?
__Say at least one word?
__Say several single words?
__Recognize names of familiar people, objects, and body parts?
__Point to an object or picture when it's named for him?
__Repeat words overheard in conversation?
__Use two-word "sentences"?
__Follow simple instructions?
How Parents Can Help
You don't have to be a licensed teacher to help your child learn language—and you don't have to schedule time for formal lessons, either. Children learn language through normal interactions with the people around them. All you have to do is take advantage of the opportunities that arise every day. Here are some tips to help you make the most of them:
1. Start Early
You don't need to wait until your child is old enough to speak before you start introducing her to language. From the day she's born, you can talk, sing, and read to your child, to help start her on the road to learning. Try talking or singing during mealtime, bathtime... and even while changing diapers. It'll be valuable for her, and fun for both of you.
2. Talk With—Not to—Your Child
Even when your child is still in the babbling stage, the two of you can still have "conversations." Treat your child's babble like language, and answer back with real words as though you understand what she's saying (even if you don't). Then let her "reply" with some more babble. It may seem like a silly game, but you're teaching your child how conversations work, and how to take turns speaking and listening.
3. Play the Name Game
You can help your child learn new words by saying the names of your child's favorite things while the two of you use them: "Here comes the ball" or "Mmmm... cereal." Once your child gets the hang of a word, you can also check her understanding by asking "Where's the ball?" and letting her answer by pointing at the ball. Or, once she's a little older and knows how to say the word, you can ask, "What's this?" and let her say, "Ball!"
4. Build and Expand
When your child speaks in one- or two-word sentences, include her full meaning in your reply. For example, if she says, "No duck," you might answer with "You don't want the duck?" (or, in a different context, "You can't find the duck?"). That way, you can confirm that you understand what she means, and simultaneously introduce the structure of the complete sentence.
Of course, there are plenty of other ways you can build your child's language, too. The important thing to remember is that most language development arises naturally from the sorts of activities that you and your child do every day. Just by being yourself, you're already your child's first teacher—and your child's first classroom is the world around her. Take advantage of opportunities to talk, sing, and play with your child. It will help your child learn, and also help to strengthen the bond between you. Most important, you'll both have fun doing it, too.