BABY TALK: Good or bad?
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ENCOURAGING DEVELOPMENT It is helpful to stay just slightly ahead of your baby's developmental stages, Dr. Eliot suggests. Most babies at three or four months will be making mostly vowel sounds, for example. So this is a good time to start making repetitive consonant sounds, such as pointing to pictures and talking about"the cat, the cow and the canary" in a children's book.
Through the first year, a baby concentrates primarily on individual words. But at 16 to 18 months, toddlers begin to appreciate differences in word order. For example, 16- to 18-month-olds were seated in front of a pair of television sets, each showing Sesame Street puppets acting out one of the following two sentences:"Big Bird is tickling Cookie Monster" or"Cookie Monster is tickling Big Bird." The children looked more at the video that corresponded correctly to whichever sentence was playing on voice-over.
This ability to appreciate the meaning of word order is quite helpful when toddlers begin speaking two-word phrases themselves, at about 18 to 24 months. Just listen to a two-year-old:"I go.""See kitty.""More milk."
Parents can help at this stage by not stressing out over grammatical mistakes."There's a good reason why older twos, threes and fours come up with constructions such as 'He gots a purple truck;' 'She beed happy' and 'Katie comed over,' Dr. Eliot explains.
The child is learning the rules of grammar, without ever having been formally taught. She is taking an irregular verb - one whose past tense is not simply formed by adding"-ed" on the end - and treating it like a regular verb.These errors are a normal part of learning language, Dr. Eliot says. And they'll continue, despite parents' correction, until a child eventually memorizes the rules of grammar.
The important thing is to encourage your toddler's efforts. If she says"He gots a purple truck," just respond by repeating the sentence correctly:"Yes! Jimmy has a purple truck." Simply hearing the correct versionis more helpful - and certainly more fun - than being told"No, that's not right."
BILINGUAL BABIES? If learning one's native tongue is a big job, parents may be concerned that exposing a baby to two or more languages, either in a bilingual home or through time spent with a caretaker who speaks a different language, might be too much of a burden.
It's not, says Dr. Brazelton."I wish I had raised my children bilingually. If a child is lucky enough to hear two languages - or even three - he is set up to be bilingual."
Hearing different languages can be confusing at first, Dr. Brazelton admits, and there can be delays in learning English as the child sorts out more than one language. But in the end, the child comes out ahead, he emphasizes.
Dr. Golinkoff agrees."We know from research that the critical period when a person is most receptive to learning multiple languages is before puberty," she says."And to become the best native speaker, the best time to learn is age five and under. So what do we do in this country? We teach foreign languages after puberty."
Research shows that the brain seems to be sculpted by early language experiences," Dr. Golinkoff adds. And if there is no exposure to other languages?"The native language takes over those areas of the brain."
THE JOY OF READING It's never too soon to introduce a baby to the joys of books and words. Use cloth or cardboard books for babies, suggests Dr. Golinkoff. Now is the time to make books fun, so don't make proper page-turning an issue, and don't worry if your child wants to skip pages or just talk about the pictures, she adds. Just have a good time.
If, for some reason, parents are unable to read with their child,"perhaps an older sibling or a babysitter can read to him," suggests Dr. Jusczyk. Visiting story time at a library, with the child sitting cozily in a parent's lap, also helps promote a love of books and language."The important thing is to show your child that reading is a fun, interesting thing to do, and that you value it," he says.
While reading a child's favorite book night after night can drive parents a bit batty, the practice helps increase a child's vocabulary and his feeling of mastery, Dr. Golinkoff adds.
And for parents, it feels good indeed to know that some of the most enjoyable parts of parenting - reading stories, singing silly songs, even just chatting over breakfast - can help a child learn to love language.
SIDEBAR: Language Milestones Parents can watch for these predictable signs of language development:
•By three months: Smiles at the sound of your voice and begins to babble. Begins to imitate some sounds and turns her head toward the direction of sounds. •By seven months: Responds to his own name. Begins to respond to"no" and starts to distinguish emotions by tone of voice. Responds to sound by making sounds. Uses his voice to express happiness and displeasure and babbles chains of consonants. •By age one: Pays increasing attention to speech and responds to simple verbal requests and to"no". Babbles with inflection and says"dada" and"mama". Uses exclamations such as"Oh-oh!" and tries to imitate words. •By age two: Recognizes names of familiar people, objects and body parts. Points to objects or pictures when they are named for him. Says several single words (by 15 to 18 months). Uses phrases (by 18 to 24 months). Follows simple instructions and repeats words overheard in conversation.
Source: American Academy of Pediatrics