Human beings are born with the need and the desire to communicate.
Of course, we don't begin speaking in words or sentences until about two years old, but we start communicating immediately. Every parent can tell you the difference between a hungry cry, an angry cry or a cry of exertion. These are your child's first attempts at communication.
Cries, along with smiling, looking into your eyes, watching your mouth move while you speak are all part of infant communication. As early as 18 months, we learn up to eight new words every day and, by three years old, we can use this newfound vocabulary correctly in full sentences. Studies show that these first three years of life will lay the groundwork for a lifetime of communication, so parents and caregivers can make a profound difference.
There are many ways we can support their developing language skills and our role begins during the first few days of life.
Actively listen when your child attempts to communicate. For an infant, communication can be cooing or smiling. Encourage these efforts by responding in kind, mimicking the sounds they're making, smiling, and making eye contact. By three or four months old, your child will begin to babble and imitate the sounds of their mother tongue.
WATCH: How baby talk is vital to language development. Story continues below.
When you're focusing on them, you can often tell what they're referring to, and give them the word they might be trying to say. Then pause. This pause is key because it gives the child time to understand and respond so the back and forth can continue.
When you show interest, it encourages the child to redouble their effort because they are confident that what they are saying is being heard, understood and valued. At the same time, their brain's neural pathways are being primed and greased by these encounters.
The more they attempt to communicate, the faster the brain will send messages and, through repetition, they begin to understand more quickly and completely. This babbling is truly the beginning of a lifelong conversation.
Long before your child begins to speak, they can understand most of what you are saying. In fact, well before they produce any words, they are constantly adding new vocabulary to their lexicon and, at the same time, internalizing grammar and sentence structure. So, don't underestimate them.
You can use large words and speak in full, complex sentences because young children are sponges for descriptive language and will soak up as much as you offer. Be sure to speak clearly and slowly so they have time to understand each word.
Young children learn best through real experiences that interest them, so try to attach conversation to movement and a sensory experience. They will remember what "squishy" means if they are simultaneously squishing mud between their toes. Tasting a lemon and hearing the word "sour" will resonate, too.
If you're at a loss of what to say to someone who can't talk back yet, try linking the words to something you are currently doing. You can name what's in the room, the parts of their body, or what you see, smell and hear during a walk through the park. Narrate tasks such as unloading the dishwasher or changing their diaper. You'll find daily life is full of rich vocabulary if you just start talking.
As your child gets older, you will become a translator of sorts. One of the most frustrating things about being a toddler is that they understand far more than they can express. They know what they want, and they may even have some of the vocabulary, but somehow the idea just isn't coming out coherently. This is where you can help by giving them words to explain themselves.
Think of your child at the very beginning of their life. Undoubtedly, they watched you while you spoke, studying your mouth and lips as you produced the different sounds of their mother tongue. By three to four months old, they were imitating those sounds and practicing new syllables and tones.
This is how the child builds the muscles in their lips, tongue, palate, and larynx to produce language and make the sounds unique to their mother tongue. How can you help? Encourage babbling, blowing bubbles, and sounds of all kinds.
Repeat what they say and follow up with questions or affirmations. Later, you can ask open-ended questions to keep the conversation going. The more time the child spends exercising these muscles, the more clearly they will be able to enunciate and express themselves.
Read. Every day. Read with your child and model reading books yourself. When your child sees you reading books, they internalize the value of reading and will come to view it as a pleasure. When you're reading with your child, let the words jump off the page.
Use gestures to demonstrate action words so the meaning is more clearly conveyed. Look at picture books and have a conversation about what you see. Rather than just reading the book as written, ask your older toddler "what do you think will happen next?" before turning the page enticingly.
Finally, it's crucial to trust that your child's language will come. It's easy to become obsessed with developmental milestones and comparing your child with others. But learning happens when children feel safe, secure, and loved so it's best to keep language play light and fun.
Sing songs, recite poems and use fingerplays to entice them with the rhyme and rhythm of language. Avoid testing. It may seem innocent, but constantly hearing "what's this?" or "what colour is that?" can be stressful for someone who isn't quite sure of the answer or has become bored with the questions.
It's not necessary to correct pronunciation in young children as their speech will naturally evolve until all those adorable toddler phrases fade away and your six year old is left speaking fluently. Instead of correcting them, just repeat the word in your own sentence so that they hear the way it should sound.
Of course, if you are concerned that there may be a hearing delay or problem with the development of your child's mouth, start a dialogue with your child's doctor early. That way, if there is a problem, you can see a specialist sooner rather than later.