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How Kids Learn To Talk

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Development & Learning

Your baby had nearly fully-developed hearing even in the last few months before birth. He was eavesdropping on your conversations even in the womb. Learning language is that important: the hardware to hear is ready to go from the first moments of life.

So why does it take nearly two years for your child really to start to talk? Is there any reason to pay attention to a baby’s language much before age two?

Actually, a lot happens for language development in the first few months of life. Babies hear what is spoken around them and their brains shape themselves to be receptive to only the speech sounds the babies hear. By about 10 months, babies who once could hear any speech sound of any language in the world have narrowed their focus to only the speech sounds of the language spoken at home.

Babies practice those speech sounds. They babble. They babble in what sound like sentences. They seem to be trying to communicate, long before they can actually speak.

Slowly, your baby refines his babbling to imitate the words you emphasize. By about 11 months, your child says his first word, even though your friends couldn’t quite hear it. More words quickly follow and pretty soon other people believe that your kid is talking.

And then, if you talk to your child, the “language explosion” takes over. By the time your child is five he will have learned over 5000 words and will be able to speak in full sentences, ask questions, talk about yesterday and tomorrow, and even lie once in a while. This happens pretty much by itself. Your child is pre-programmed to learn to talk. It just happens.

So if kids learn to talk pretty much on their own, what’s your role? Do parents matter?

Absolutely. In fact, you’re the most important part of the puzzle. Without you, your child would have had the potential to speak but never really got there. Those 5,000 words by age five? Those come from you.

But the 5,000 words don’t come as vocabulary lessons. Teaching a child to talk is not like cramming for the SAT. The 5,000 words come in everyday conversations together, talking about the weather and what you did today and what’s for dinner.

Your role is to model language. You talk with your child as if she were a friend. You ask about her day, talk about what clothes she wants to wear and so on. You ask questions and wait for the answers. When you talk to your child, you don’t just give orders. You don’t just speak in as few words as possible. You demonstrate how people talk. To learn language, children have to hearlanguage and they have to have practice speaking it. That’s what you’re there for.

So be extravagant. Use lots of words, use complicated sentences, say silly things. The more you use language with your child the smarter he will get. As long as you let your child talk too, more language from you means more language for him.

It’s easy to get impatient. You’re busy, you don’t have much time. If you wait for your kid to tell you something you’ll never get anywhere. But if you don’t wait, you’re kid will never get anywhere. You’ve got to slow down and take the time to talk. And to listen.

Think of something you learned that required some practice but is now automatic. Maybe you learned to drive a car or ride a bicycle or make pancakes. The first few tries were probably not all that successful. Even after you mastered the techniques, you had to be careful to remember all the steps. You had to think about it. You were slow.

But you learned. You got faster with practice. Now you hardly need to think. But if someone had taken over—because you were so slow—and done things for you, you would never have learned. You might even have felt that the job was too hard for you. It might’ve seemed easier just to let someone else do it.

You want your child to learn to talk, and not only that, you want your child to learn to talk well. You want him to be able to put his thoughts into words and to think new thoughts because he has the language to do that. And learning this takes practice. It takes time to master.

Speaking might be natural, but it still takes time and loving parents to get really good at it.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.