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BABY TALK: Good or bad?

In our June issue, we covered"Straight Talk About Speech Problems" - how to define kids' speech disorders and how to get help and treatment. This month, KATHY SENA takes a look at BABY TALK: Good or bad?

It's up to parents to provide a language-rich environment for their children right from the start. But should that environment include baby talk?"Yes!" says Roberta Golinkoff, Ph.D., director of the Infant Language Laboratory at the University of Delaware and co-author of"How Babies Talk: The Magic and Mystery of Language in the First Three Years of Life".

Babies like 'baby talk', Dr. Golinkoff says, noting that even immediately after birth, babies respond more to infant-directed talk than they do to adult-directed talk. When speaking baby talk,"your facial expressions are exaggerated. Your eyes open wide. That's very appealing to a baby," she says, adding that researchers repeatedly have found that baby talk helps infants to differentiate between sounds.

Other experts agree."Young babies have a lot of information to process," says leading child development expert, pediatrician Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, author of"Touchpoints: Your Child's Emotional and Behavioral Development". 'Motherese', Brazelton's term for this 'I'm-talking-to-you' language,"breaks through and sorts things out for a baby," he says.

But won't baby talk lead to kids who talk like, well, babies?

Not at all, according to Dr. Golinkoff."Baby talk naturally stops as the child gets older and is able to better communicate with the parent," she explains."You just naturally adjust. At age three, you're not doing it."

While you're doing all that baby talk, be sure to say your child's name frequently, the experts advise."We know that babies are picking up on the sound of their own name as early as four-and-a-half months," says Peter Jusczyk, PhD, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Johns Hopkins University, and author of"The Discovery of Spoken Language". And while they're still months away from saying those much-anticipated words,"babies know the meaning of 'Mommy' and 'Daddy' by about six months. That's a lot earlier than we supposed."

LANGUAGE PATTERNS By about nine months, babies begin understanding the frequency of patterns in language, Dr. Jusczyk explains. A baby will listen longer to the sounds that occur frequently.

During one experiment at Johns Hopkins University, researchers visited the homes of 16 nine-month-olds for 10 days during a two-week period. During each visit, the researcher played an audio tape that included the same three stories. The stories included odd words such as 'python' and 'hornbill' - words that wouldn't be encountered in the babies' everyday experience. After a couple of weeks during which nothing was done, the babies were brought to the research lab, where they listened to two recorded lists of words. The first list included words heard in the stories. The second included similar words, but not the exact words used in the stories.

"The babies listened longer to the words that had appeared in the stories," Dr. Jusczyk reports. The research showed that the infants had extracted individual words from the story. When a control group of 16 nine-month-olds, who hadn't heard the stories, listened to the two groups of words, they showed no preference for either list.

This doesn't mean that, at nine months of age, the babies knew the meaning of the words, Dr. Jusczyk points out."But they do store away these sound patterns," he explains."They're like little tags, waiting for meaning.

GIRL TALK While knowing how language skills develop is helpful for parents, it's important not to get too hung up on milestones, because there's such a wide range of normal development, Dr. Jusczyk says. Also, each child is different. Even siblings of different sexes may learn language at different speeds."One recent study found that as early as mid-gestation, female fetuses move their mouths significantly more than male fetuses, as if already practicing for a lifetime of speech," says Lise Eliot, PhD, assistant professor of cell biology and anatomy at The Chicago Medical School, and the author of"What's Going On In There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life".

And female babies, on average, start talking a month or two earlier than boys, according to Dr. Eliot. However, boys usually catch up during the vocabulary spurt that occurs between 18 and 24 months, when toddlers can learn an amazing 10 to 20 words per day, says Dr. Jusczyk.

Even long before your child starts holding up her end of the conversation, the best thing you can do to help improve her language skills is to talk with her, Dr. Eliot stresses."Babies and toddlers need to hear a lot of conversations," she explains."But that doesn't mean you should plug your baby in front of a TV or just let her listen while you talk on the phone." It's the interaction with the parent/caregiver that will make all the difference.

Repetition is important, but don't underestimate your child."Babies get bored," Dr. Eliot says."You need to keep changing things." So instead of saying 'cup' over and over while pointing to a cup, try saying,"Would you like the blue cup or the purple cup?" or"Would you like water or juice in your cup?"

There is some controversy, in academic circles, over whether or not it's possible to speed up a baby's ability to learn language, Dr. Jusczyk says, adding that there's really no magic method for accelerating language learning beyond exposing babies to conversation and reading to them.


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