Thursday, September 10, 2009

From Cues to Conversation: How Babies Learn to Talk

By Jennifer Banuelos

In past posts, we've explained how newborns communicate with their caregivers to get what they need (See Baby Behavior Basic Part 3), but we haven't discussed how communication with your baby changes as he gets older. Until now!

First we must remind you that all babies are different! Despite these differences, babies all over the world share a similar pattern of language development. In this post, we'll go over the steps of language development during the first year described by the experts (year 2 will come next time). It is fun to watch your baby's communication skills expand. When you respond to your baby's cues, motions, and words, you encourage and enhance his learning. Remember, the ages listed here are just averages. There is a wide range of "normal." If your baby's development seems different than described here, it is not necessarily cause for concern. If you do have concerns, discuss them with your pediatrician.

Newborns use body movements, facial expressions, and crying to express their needs. At this stage, your baby's 'language' is based on reflexes, but young babies do enjoy the sound of human voices more than any other sound. Newborns prefer high-pitched, simple, repetitive speech, which is often referred to as baby-talk or motherese.

2 months
By 2 months, babies make a range of meaningful noises, like cooing, fussing, crying, and laughing. When your baby is at this stage, responding to his needs quickly and consistently will provide him with a sense of security and the desire to continue learning new communication skills.

3-6 months
Babies at this stage like making new sounds, like squeals, growls, croons, trills, and vowel sounds. They still love the sound of your voice and at this stage, they may be able to respond with sounds of their own! My husband and I have been talking to Olivia since the day she was born. We didn't even realize how often we talked to her until someone pointed it out to us. It may seem strange to say "Let's go in your room and change your diaper" or "it's time to eat" to a tiny baby, but before long, it becomes routine. You can start by reading to your baby or singing songs to him. Once you see how happy he is when he hears your voice, you may find yourself talking to him more often.

6-10 months
This stage is when the real fun begins - when babies begin babbling and using consonants and vowels together. This is a great time to start using "Baby Signs," or hand gestures similar to those used by people who are hearing impaired. The baby in the picture above is giving the sign for "please." Baby Signs were popularized by researchers here at UC Davis, who have found benefits to teaching babies to use signs (see for more information about the benefits). It is best to use the signs while saying the words out loud. We started out using only 2 signs with Olivia - "more" (tapping finger tips together) and "all done" (moving hand, palm down and fingers straight, from side to side). There are numerous books and web sites about baby signs and some communities even have classes available for parents, but you don't really need to buy anything to get started. You can develop your own signs or even watch for signs that your baby develops himself. By starting to use signs between 6 and 10 months, you will be helping your baby get to the next stage!

10-12 months
Around this age, babies start to make specific, meaningful sounds. They begin using the same gestures to communicate, which is why the previous stage is a good time for you to start using Baby Signs! Studies have shown that infants whose mothers' are highly responsive develop language more quickly.

12 months
Baby's first word is usually spoken at the end of the first year, although many babies reach this stage earlier or later. Motor and language development tend to compete, so a baby who is learning to walk may not be concentrating on learning to talk and vice versa. Also, the first word (or the first few words) may not be very clear and may only be recognizable to the parents. That is just fine. It is important to remember that language development is not a race and it will not help to push your baby to say things correctly.

*Bloom and Lenneberg (Bloom (1993) The transition from infancy to language: Acquiring the power of expression and Lenneberg (1967) Biological Foundations of Language).

Next time: We'll talk about babies' language development in his second year.

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