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Though it may be surprising, newborns begin learning language while still in the womb.
When emerging into the world, infants enter it with a knowledge of the rhythm of speech, music, and maybe even a few words of vocabulary, even if these can’t yet be expressed.
Since the process of learning language begins in the womb, there are techniques you can employ to more fully engage the language centers of your unborn child at that time, but there are also ways you can encourage your baby to talk even after they have a few months, or even quite a few months, behind them.
Stimulating Language in the Womb
You can do this as you would normally, listening to music on a stereo or through the speakers of your car.
Avoid putting headphones directly on your stomach, as this can overstimulate your unborn child.
The recommended volume for your child to best enjoy music that you play should be at about the level of the ambient noise made by a washing machine.
Children begin to hear and make sense of sound in the womb at about 25 weeks into your pregnancy.
Exposing your child to music in the womb does not guarantee that your child will be mathematically inclined or musically apt.
But by engaging your child with sound, you give it practice at discerning differences in it.
Simple melodies will be less overwhelming for your child.
- Consider songs you might put your baby to sleep with, or childhood songs like:
- The ABC song
- You are my Sunshine
- Hush Little Baby
- Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
Talk to your baby while you are pregnant.
Children can recognize the voices of parents and other family members that it has heard while in the womb.
By talking to your baby or reading them books, you will help them begin learning about sound while still in the womb.
Find a multilingual environment.
Different languages follow different rules of stress and intonation.
Studies have shown that your newborn will have the ability to identify their native tongue, so they might benefit from being familiarized with other languages.
You might consider:
Watching foreign films.
Sitting in on classes teaching language.
Doing light volunteer work with an ethnically oriented outreach program.
Sing educational songs
While it is unlikely that your child will learn the song you are singing in the way young children or adults do, familiarization with common childhood songs may encourage their learning of it after being born.
There are many songs for you to choose from, including:
- One Two, Buckle my Shoe
- One Potato, Two Potato
- Three Little Piggies
- Months of the Year Song
Encouraging Language Development
Respond to your baby.
Your baby likely won’t be able to articulate words until they are between the ages of 10 and 13 months.
Instead, they will coo and cry as a means of communication.
Respond to these as you would normally, and don’t fret over using baby-talk.
The cutesy language used to communicate with young children might actually help hold your child’s attention and stimulate language learning.
Infant-directed speech (also called Motherese or baby talk) encourages your baby to practice vocalizations.
To do it, hold your baby or lay them on the floor.
Look at your baby and imitate or build on the sounds they make.
Pause to allow your baby to “respond.” This is the beginning of back-and-forth conversation between you and your child!
Try to match coos and cries with the objects they directs their sounds at. Instead of bringing them a bottle, ask, “Does baby Tiffany want her bottle? Dada will bring you a bottle.”
Combine specific items with your spoken responses.
You might ask, “Is this what you want? Does baby Tommy want his stuffed elephant?”
Take cues from your child.
This is especially important while they are learning to coordinate their speaking with new vocabulary.
They might make a certain noise or cry when they are hungry or needs to be changed.
Respond to this as you normally would with spoken language, saying things like:
“Little Emma feels like she needs her diaper changed! Do you need your diaper changed? Let’s get you a fresh diaper!”
“Is baby Bert hungry? It’s almost lunch time.
Let’s go get your bottle ready.”
“Do you need more? More milk? Here you go.”
Describe what you are doing.
When you interact with your baby or are doing something in front of them, describe the process as you do it.
You might describe what you are shopping for in the supermarket, how you are buckling them into their car seat, or even what you are making for lunch.
“Does Kris need help getting his toy off the shelf? I’ll be right there, honey.
Just let mama wash these dishes. Wash, wash, wash!”
“Look, Sarah! Fido wants to come in from going potty outside. Good boy, Fido.”
“What’s daddy doing? Is he getting Andy’s favorite book? Look Andy! I got it.
Hooray! Let’s sit down and read the book together.”
Describe what your baby is doing.
If they’re clapping their hands, say “You’re clapping so well, Josh!”
When they get excited to see a family member coming toward them, say “There’s Dada, Meg!
Are you so happy to see Dada?”
This is natural for many parents, but by saying, “That’s your toy! Are you playing with your toy?”
you will help your baby make connections between items and words, as well as their own actions and name.
Speak with your child regularly.
You may think that you are encouraging overly talkative behavior when you narrate daily life to your child, but this is not the case.
Try not to worry about that, because your child will hear and understand a great deal, and may even pick up on your hesitancy.
After all, even young children can understand facial expressions.
Children who are not talked to enough during language development are often negatively impacted later in life.
Some research suggests that children in talkative families are more linguistically stimulated due to the regular exchange of language.
This could be a potential link to better performance on reading tests at older ages.
Do some articulation exercises with your child.
Difficult phrases can trip even experienced speakers up, and these can be fun exercises for your child to practice.
You might repeat difficult daily expressions that you’ve become tongue tied over, or you might try some simple tongue twisters like:
She Sells Sea Shells
Whether the Weather
Fuzzy Wuzzy was a Bear
Talk softly with your child during the exercises.
Children are sensitive to sound and can be easily upset by loud or confusing noises.
The noise level of neonatal intensive care units is 50 decibels, or the sound of regular conversation at home
Read books to your child.
It has been proven that reading has a powerful positive influence on your child’s development, including their language development.
Reading will help develop their imagination and also contribute the expansion of their vocabulary.
Familiar words will become reinforced in their mind, and enable them to start using those new words.
You don’t have to wait until your child is old enough to make sense of the words on the page.
A book with colorful pictures can become a pre-nap teaching activity.
Reacting Appropriately while Learning to Talk
Exercise patience with the stages of language development.
You only want what’s best for your child, and when you think they should be at a certain level and they aren’t, it can be frustrating for a parent.
However, your child will learn language at their own speed, and it’s important to be patient and encouraging with them while they make sense of vocabulary and grammar.
Notice and address developmental delays.
In most cases, there is nothing to worry about, but sometimes lack of speech, motor control, or other features can indicate a developmental delay in your child.
Early recognition of a delay can frequently result in the issue being resolved.
To this end, you may want to bring it to your pediatrician’s attention if you notice:
3-4 months: poor head support, no babbling or infrequent noise-making, regular eye crossing, and a lack of social smiling.
4-7 months: overly stiff or floppy body, difficulty keeping head steady, difficulty sitting, lack of noise response/social smiling, lack of expressed affection toward caregivers, and doesn’t interact with objects.
7-12 months: no crawling, lack of evenness while crawling (1 month after starting), can’t stand with assistance, lacks curiosity (especially with hiding games like peek-a-boo), speaks infrequently, and doesn’t use body language.
13-24 months: unable to walk by 18 months, cannot make sense or use of daily objects, cannot vocalize a minimum of 6 words by 18 months or 2-word responses by 24 months, doesn’t repeat and mimic words and actions, cannot follow simple instructions, loses previously mastered skills.
3-5 years: speech delays (stuttering, lisping, difficulty with articulation), poor motor skills, and under-developed social/emotional skills.
Respond to babbling as an infant.
In the pre-linguistic stage (0-13 months) your child will babble, cry, coo, and imitate some sounds with poor control.
Toward the end of this phase, they might even begin saying, “dadada” or “mamama.”
Encourage these sounds and connect each with actions and objects throughout this phase.
Interact with single word communications.
In the holophrastic stage (10 – 13 months), your baby will mostly speak one word at a time, adding meaning through context and non-verbal cues.
For example, they might say, “Dada” forcefully, indicating they want their father to come to them.
Engage 2-word communication with normal speech.
The 2-word sentence phase (at about 18 months) is where your child will begin joining parts of speech together.
They will often put nouns with adjectives or verbs with modifiers in expressions like, “Bottle give,” “Where dada?”, and “Not mama.”
Encourage more complicated language, even if incorrect.
In the multiple-word sentence stage (2-2.5 years) your child will start putting the rules of language together.
At this point, they’ll probably make many linguistic errors, like “I catched it” or “I falling off it.”
This is normal, and part of the learning process.
Encourage their efforts so they know you are proud of their attempts at communication.
Ask more complicated questions as their ability grows.
When your child reaches the complex sentence phase (2.5-3 years) they will have some practice at speaking.
They’ll start trying to put their thoughts in more complicated patterns.
There are frequently many errors at this stage.
Do not punish your child for poor grammar; this can make them afraid of speaking and making an error.
Instead, ask them to explain themselves and describe their thoughts.
Carry on full conversations.
At the adult-like sentence stage (5-6 years), your child’s grammar should be near native and their usage of even complex structures seamless.
Continue to encourage reading and speaking around them, as this will still stimulate their linguistic centers and help them continue learning.