Why Infant Language is Important
Many parents, soon to be parents or care providers often wonder what they are supposed to say and read to the little ones they care for. The answer is very simple, ANYTHING. This past year I had a new mom be completely transparent with me, confessing that she didn’t know her baby was old enough to listen to stories, be involved in a conversation, or really understand anything she said. I was able to quickly reassure the new mom that her sweet baby was a sponge soaking up everything about their environment. As the conversation progressed the mom asked what kinds of books should she be reading? What type of conversations should she be having? Read ANYTHING. If you are going back to school, read a textbook. Do you read the newspaper or news on your phone, read that. Talk about EVERYTHING. Describe what you are doing. Explain how you are cooking dinner, running their bath water, getting them ready for school. All of these examples are excellent ways to help your baby develop their language skills.
Language skills start developing a long time before their first words are ever spoken. Speech is recognized by infants as soon as they are born. They develop a preference for their mothers’ voice while still in the womb. Within the first few weeks of life their brains are able to distinguish the phonemes in all language, which offers the opportunity for a baby to learn any language. However, by 6 months babies have already activated the neural structures for identifying the phonemes of the language spoken around them. Meaning their brains are already processing which sounds are used in the language spoken to them, while not giving much focus to those that aren’t used frequently in the languages spoken to them. This is why as a caregiver you can read them anything, because even though their brains aren’t understanding the words spoken to them, it is soaking up the letter sounds and blends that build the language which is spoken to them.
At 2 months old, the motor nerves for the infant’s throat, tongue, and mouth have become myelinated (this is what forms around the nerve to allow nerve impulses to move or move more quickly. Basically, the brain can now tell these muscles to move more precise and efficiently. Since vowel phonemes are present in most all languages and are easiest to produce, these are usually the sounds infants first make. Babies continue practicing these sounds and usually around 5 months start combining them with consonants. The more the parent or caregiver repeats these sounds back to the baby, the more frequently the baby will make these babbling sounds. This is why it is important for caregivers to offer the infant a chance to respond when talking to them. It opens the door for the infant to have a chance to try to imitate the sounds the adult is making. By the 9th or 10th month the baby now realizes that meaning can be conveyed by sounds he/she makes. Typically, it is by social interactions such as “Hi” and “Bye”. Quickly the baby understands more than they can convey back to the adults. Imagine how frustrating that must be? Often as adults we feel that frustration is a bad thing, yet for these babies it is what pushes them to continue to develop their language skills. It is what helps them make sounds for more than the sake of just making sounds. Now imagine the thrill they must have from conquering the human language and having the adults around them understand what they are trying to convey. Around 12 months the child has learned around 6 words. He/She continues to add a few words a month, until an explosion happens after the little one has approximately 50 words. This explosion usually happens between 12-24 months which is a direct result of rapid brain growth and development during this time. For the next 4-5 years a child will continue to learn a new for every 2 hours he/she is awake.
Speak to them as if they understand what you are saying. Speak to them slowly, remembering that the neural speed of the child’s brain is half of the adult brain, until about the age of 12. Speak to them knowing you are laying the foundation for intelligent communication. Speak to them not knowing when the moment of understanding will occur but knowing that it will come.