How to support language development in babies

PARENTING SCIENCE


Babies possess amazing learning abilities. But to master language, they need our help. Studies suggest we can support language development by engaging babies in conversation, and by providing them with a variety of special cues and communicative experiences.

Where to begin? Check out these evidence-based tips.

woman talking face to face with smilling baby while father holds him

Tip #1: Embrace “infant-directed speech”

Many people find themselves changing their speech patterns when they address a baby. They may adopt a higher pitch, and their voices may take on a more musical, variable tone. They tend to speak more slowly, too, and repeat certain key words over and over again.

Is it mere silliness? On the contrary. Researchers have evidence that this “infant-directed speech” helps babies understand our emotional states. It may also help babies pick out individual words and decipher their meanings.

Learn more in my article, “Baby communication: Why your baby prefers infant-directed speech”, where I discuss the attention-getting features of this mode of speaking. In addition, check out my article, “Baby talk 101: How infant-directed speech helps babies learn language”, where I review the ways that infant-directed speech helps babies identify specific sounds and words.

Tip #2: Talk back to babies when they vocalize or babble

All around the world, babies typically follow the same pattern: Between 5 and 10 months they begin to repeat some of simple syllables they hear, like “ba ba ba ba” (Lang et al 2019).

This is called “canonical babbling,” and you might think of it as a one-way phenomenon: Babies babble, and we listen. But experiments confirm that babies are paying attention to our reactions to their vocalizations. In one study, mothers were asked to imitate the babbled syllables they heard their babies making. The babies responded by doubling down — focusing more intensely on producing syllables. So it looks like we can encourage our babies to practice speech-like sounds by repeating some of the syllables they babble (Goldstein and Shwade 2008; Emlinger et al 2019).

Moreover, when babies direct their vocalizations at a specific object, we can take that as a cue to start talking with them about that object (Albert et al 2018). We can expand on whatever it is we suspect the baby is trying to communicate (Lieberman et al 2019). “Oh! You like the banana? Do you want the banana? Let’s eat the banana!”

The bottom line? Babies are busy learning language long before they speak their first words. And experts advise that talking with babies — responding to their babbling and communication attempts — is a crucial way for babies to learn about the sounds and meanings of language.

Tip #3: Support language development with lots of one-on-one conversation

baby sits on father's lap; they are talking happily, face to face, and baby is gesturing

Babies can learn something from “eavesdropping” on other people’s discussions. But when it comes to learning language quickly and efficiently, there may be nothing quite as powerful as direct participation in a genuine, one-on-one conversation (Tamis-Lemonda et al 2014).

For instance, in modern, industrialized countries — and in some traditional, agrarian communities as well — you can observe a similar pattern: When children log more conversation time, their language skills seem to get a special boost (Frank et al 2021; Newman et al 2016; Shneidman and Goldin-Meadow 2012). 

And when researchers have actively coached new parents to engage their babies in high-quality conversations — taking turns, and emphasizing the features of “infant-directed speech” — babies have ended up with better language outcomes (Ferjan Ramírez et al 2019; Ferjan Ramírez et al 2020; Garcia et al 2019).

Tip #4: Use this as a reminder to make your conversations more “tuned in” and rewarding

Some child psychologists use the acronym “PRIDE” to get the point across. Babies benefit when we

  • PRAISE them;
  • REFLECT on their speech (or attempts at speech) with appropriate verbal responses;
  • IMITATE  their playful behaviors;
  • DESCRIBE their behavior as you talk with them (“Oh! You’re rolling the ball!”); and
  • show ENTHUSIASM or enjoyment  (Wow! That’s great!”).

Why? If you do these things, you’ll be engaging your baby in conversation, and we’ve already noted how that’s helpful. But the PRIDE approach is valuable in other ways, too. It can help inspire emotional closeness and good moods, making communication feel more rewarding. It may also make it easier for your baby to discover the usefulness of language — not only for naming objects, but also for expressing feelings and desires

In support of these ideas, researchers have noticed that babies tend to develop better language skills when their parents respond to them in a sensitive, positive manner (e.g., Madigan et al 2019; Garcia et al 2019). And there is experimental evidence too: In studies tracking infants at risk for behavior problems, researchers randomly assigned some parents to receive training in the “PRIDE” technique. The results? Compared with infants in control groups, babies with trained parents tended to experience greater increases in language production over time (Garcia et al 2015 and Bagner et al 2016).

Tip #5: Leverage the power of curiosity. Look for these signs!

baby pointing up at sky, mother looks to see what baby is pointing at

We’re more likely to learn when we’re actively interested or curious, and this is true of babies as well as adults. So when your baby is really interested in something, that’s the best possible time talk about it. Your baby is highly motivated, and by responding promptly, you are making it easier for your baby to map new words to their meanings.

But how can you tell if a baby is interested? When researchers have watched interactions between mothers and infants, most mothers seemed to know:  Mothers were more likely to name an object if they saw their babies looking at it or vocalizing — just the right timing for helping their babies learn (Tamis-Lemonda et al 2014; Chang et al 2016).

Another big clue? When your baby points at something.  Most babies start pointing at objects before their first birthdays, and fascinating experiments suggest that babies make use of pointing — at least in part — to get us to share interesting new verbal information about things (Kovacs et al 2015; Lucca and Wilbourn 2018; Lucca and Wilbourn 2019).

Tip #6: Use gestures, and encourage your baby to use gestures

Pointing is a simple gesture that can make communication more clear. But there are others. And studies indicate that babies learn language more easily from people who incorporate such gestures into their speech. There is also evidence that babies have better language outcomes if they themselves use lots of gestures. Read more about it in my article,  “The science of gestures: We learn faster when we talk with our hands.”

Tip #7: Engage your baby in playful music activities

Music and language both make use of tones and rhythms, and some of the same parts of the brain that process music also process speech. So can exposing you baby to music — teaching your baby to pay attention to the features of music — support language development?

As I note in another Parenting Science article, there’s reason to think so. When researchers assigned babies to participate in certain musical activities, these children went on to acquire more advanced language skills. Which kinds of activities are likely to help? Experiments suggest a variety of approaches, including bouncing your baby to the rhythm, encouraging your baby to shake a maraca or rattle to keep time, and playing music-based games (like dancing when the music plays and freezing when it stops). For the full story, see my article, “Can musical training help babies learn language?”

Tip #8:  Read to your baby

It might seem that babies are too young to benefit from storybooks. But there are undeniable links between shared storybook reading and child language development (Flack et al 2018), and it makes sense that shared reading could contribute to a boost in language skills: It can expose young children to a more varied vocabulary.

For instance, in one study, researchers watched how parents interacted with their toddlers under two different conditions — while reading a storybook, and while watching a television program together. Parents used richer, more complex language during storybook time (Hanson et al 2021).

Then there’s additional possibility: If we make our babies feel that reading books is fun, we may be laying the groundwork for our children to really engage themselves — to talk with us during the storytelling, to make comments about the content, to share their own ideas. In a recent study, researchers found that this sort of engagement was linked with toddlers’ emerging language skills  (Dicataldo and Roch 2022).

More about your baby’s language development

You can find more evidence-based information in these Parenting Science articles:

In addition, if you’re interested in other aspects of your baby’s development, check out these offerings:


References: How to support language development in babies

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Content of “How to support language development in babies” last modified 6/2022

image of woman talking to infant while father holds him by monkeybusinessimages / istock

image of baby on father’s lap by Drazen Zigic / istock

image of baby pointing with mother watching by ampyang / istock



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