6 things you can do to help your baby develop language skills

Did you know the way in which we speak to babies affects their language development as children? We asked an expert what we can do to help our bubs get the gift of the gab!

Long before their first word, babies’ brains are working very hard to learn language (they’ll probably learn to use the apps on your phone before they utter their first word too). So what can you do as a parent to help the language development process along? We asked Dr Leher Singh from the National University of Singapore for some expert advice. She’s the Director of the Infant and Child Language Laboratory at NUS, so she knows her stuff! Here are Dr Singh’s six tips, based on research, to help your baby develop language (and remember, we’re not into mummy shaming around here, so don’t panic if you’ve done none of these things yet!)…

1. Quantity matters
Children who simply hear more language as babies go on to have significantly better language skills when they start nursery and even in primary school! So chat away to your baby and do encourage other caregivers to do the same. Talking a lot to your child is an important form of ‘linguistic nutrition’ and will nurture language growth.

2. Quality matters too!
When we are around babies, we tend to use a sing-songy, melodious style of speech, often called ‘baby talk’ or ‘infant-directed speech’. Should we do this or is it bad for our baby? Research supports the use of baby talk, showing that it helps language growth. Researchers have used a word tracking device (basically a Fitbit for words), finding that babies who don’t hear enough ‘baby talk’ demonstrate slower language growth as children and are less well prepared for kindergarten.

3. Start at the beginning
Shortly after birth, babies can tell their own languages apart from other languages, as well as their mum’s voice from another mum’s voice! This is all because they have been ‘eavesdropping’ on mum during pregnancy. They have already ‘met’ your voice before you have met theirs and they arrive ready to learn from you. So don’t wait until your child says their first word to start conversations. Babies are ready to learn from the get-go. All they need is you!

4. How you can ensure the best language for your child and what to avoid:
Some types of language help children to develop language, some do not. Speech directed to a baby really boosts language development. So when you visit a child care facility or interview caregivers, carefully examine whether caregivers are talking to the child, not above or around them. Additionally, are children learning words through conversation or taught via flash cards? Overheard conversations, TV, iPads, and flash cards do not help. Children learn language best through everyday social interaction.

5. Books, books, books!
Babies whose parents do more shared book reading with them go on to have higher vocabularies as children. But, this is not about getting your child to read independently as early as possible; it’s about listening to stories and hearing new words and sentences in an exciting context that hooks the child’s attention in. So when reading, rather than teaching your baby letter sounds, try to focus on the joy and excitement of the plot. Books often take our children into another world, introducing them to a whole new range of words and vocabulary.

6. “My toddler hardly talks, but my friend’s child is already using sentences!”
There is a huge variation in early language development. As with so much of learning, children find their own path and develop at their own rate. That said, as many as 7-8% of children do have a language delay, often remedied with good and timely speech/language therapy. Concerned parents should consult with a qualified practitioner as early intervention is best. An important consideration: if you are raising your child with more than one language, please find a practitioner with expertise in multilingual development. Assessment and therapy needs are quite different for single- versus dual-language learners.

Would you like to be a part of child language research? Dr Leher Singh and the team at the NUS Infant and Child Language Centre welcome you and your little scientist to be a part of their studies (we hear the studies are very interesting and fun to boot!). Sign up at www.blog.nus.edu.sg/babytalk or email infantlanguagecentre@nus.edu.sg.

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