Baby language development is fascinating, isn’t it? Our little nonverbal infants go from cooing to babbling and talking in full sentences in the course of a few short years. Amazing! This is one of the most researched aspects of child development and parenting. How does this really happen? Does the language we use with our babies really impact their language development?
How Do Infants Develop Language Skills?
Baby language development is a complex process that researchers continue to study. Although we understand the basic process, there are many details that we are still trying to understand. In general, baby language development occurs along this path:
- 2-3 months of age: babies begin cooing. These sounds are usually vowel sounds in response to a caregiver’s action or due to excitement or other emotion.
- 3-4 months of age: babies start to use some consonant sounds like m, p, k or g. They may start to put consonant and vowel sounds together.
- around 5 months of age: babies continue to imitate sounds they hear. They may also use nonverbal communication like reaching out for caregivers, pushing things away, etc.
- 6-7 months of age: babies become more sophisticated in their sound-making ability, perhaps even making animal sounds.
- 8-9 months of age: babies begin to understand the connection between a physical item and the word that represents it. For example, a baby might get excited when she hears the word “toy” or “milk” because she knows that word represents something she enjoys.
- 9-12 months of age: babies begin to say their first real words. Usually, these first words include a simple consonant-vowel combination like “ma-ma” or “da-da” because they are easy to say.
After the first words are said, language learning just continues non-stop.
Related reading: The Fascinating Reason You Should Care About Your Baby’s Babbling
Toddler Language Explosion
If you have been through the toddler stage before, you know that around 18 months of age toddlers experience a “language explosion.” They go from learning a handful of new words per day to learning up to 10 new words a day! Amazing! How does this happen?
I’ll spare you all the complex computational simulations that researchers used to figure this out, but basically two factors can explain this language explosion–word repetition and learning multiple words at once.
Kids at this age tend to be learning a greater proportion of difficult or moderately difficult words compared to easy words. This aids the word explosion. Additionally, repetition helps.
The Role of Repetition in Baby Language Development
We all know that young children love repetition. If you have been around a child under the age of 3 lately, you know this well. They repeat questions, they repeat words, they repeat actions….over and over again. For adults, this is honestly kind of annoying, but for these little ones, this is learning at its best. In the world of child development and parenting, as in other areas, “practice makes perfect.” Little children know this well and they inherently do what their brains need.
It turns out that repetition is helpful for young children before they are even verbal. New research coming out of the University of Maryland is showing this clearly. In a recent study, researchers evaluated 121 infants (7 months of age) and their later language development at age 2. The authors specifically wanted to understand if the amount of repetition in language that the infants were exposed to was related to their later language development.
Not surprisingly, the researchers did find that repetition makes a difference. The more words mothers spoke to their infants, and the more repetition all predicted better language development at age 2. Researchers believe that this repetition may help prime children to understand how to “segment” words. Segmentation involves how children learn to break up fluent speech into individual words. Obviously, this is a crucial task that children must learn in order to learn language.
These findings are very instructive and helpful in thinking about how children learn language. For years, we have known that the number of words a child is exposed to early in life can have a strong impact not only on their language development but their lifelong academic trajectory. As I have written about before, this exposure (or lack thereof) can also present a source of inequality among children of different socioeconomic groups. Children in lower socioeconomic groups tend to be exposed to fewer words, which is often associated with a later achievement gap as preschoolers.
From this new research on repetition, we can see that it’s not just the number of words, but also their repetitiveness that may make a difference in language development. We are continuing to see how language is really a gateway skill to many aspects of development. Language is one of the skills that makes us uniquely human, it connects us to each other, to knowledge, and to the world around us. So in talking to our youngest children, we are not only establishing a crucial bond with them, we really are setting the stage for much of their future development.
Language Development Toys
Parents often ask what types of toys help infants and toddlers with language development. To be honest, the best answer is…YOU! Just you talking to your infant and trying to respond to any words they may be trying to say is the best way to promote language development. That being said, toys can help in the dialogue process by prompting us to use new words that we might not use in typical conversation.
Stacking Cups–stacking fosters the use of positional words like “under,” “over” or “on top of” that help young children gain spatial vocabulary.
Classic Wooden Blocks–blocks also promote spatial thinking and vocabulary as we help our young children stack and move them around.
Shape Sorter–great for introducing shape names and colors.
Pretend Play Items
Pretend play is a major type of developmental play in early childhood. As children pretend, they learn valuable vocabulary, directions, role-playing tasks, as well as academic concepts like addition, colors and shapes. Pretend play is the best example of play-based learning and shows the beauty of how young children inherently learn the best.
Pretend Food–children can learn names of food as well as colors and cooking vocabulary.
Play Kitchen (an included phone is nice to encourage conversation)–kitchen play has endless opportunities for enhancing vocabulary through learning words for tasks, tools, etc.
Doctor Costume–costumes provide a wonderful way for kids to extend their pretend play. By taking on a role or character, kids learn social-emotional skills and self-regulation as they have to stay “in character.”
Related reading: The Developmental Benefits of Dress-Up Play
Astronaut Costume–providing a variety of costumes (don’t be confined by traditional gender roles), kids learn how different roles in society work together.
NEWMAN, R., ROWE, M., & BERNSTEIN RATNER, N. (2015). Input and uptake at 7 months predicts toddler vocabulary: the role of child-directed speech and infant processing skills in language development Journal of Child Language, 1-16 DOI: 10.1017/S0305000915000446
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