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How Babies Learn to Talk

A Parent's Role

So you've got this little linguistic miracle on your hands, listening to your every word and soaking up language like a sponge. Obviously, you're not going to test your baby's language skills with flashing lights and pacifiers, but what should you do to foster language development?

The good news is that the vast majority of parents are already doing what they need to do. Just spending time with your baby, chatting away as you go about your day, helps them grasp the pattern and meaning of language. "Don't think talking to your baby is a waste because she doesn't understand," says Golinkoff. "Narrate your daily activities."

And don't feel as if your baby's proper language development requires you to sound like the host of Masterpiece Theatre. Golinkoff's lab studies show that infants actually prefer that high-pitched, cooing baby talk to adult language. "It makes them pay attention," she says, particularly because parents usually get close to their child's face and use exaggerated facial expressions, allowing their baby to see and smell them. "That's a very appealing package."

Reading is another pleasant way to expose babies to language, and parents shouldn't think that any child is too young for storytime, says Henry Shapiro, M.D., medical director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at All Children's Hospital, in St. Petersburg, Florida, and a recent chair of the section of developmental and behavioral pediatrics for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "Book language" is different from spoken language, says Dr. Shapiro, and reading prepares children for the literary language they'll encounter later in school. The bonus of storytime is that it combines language learning with bonding and fosters respect for books from the beginning.

The experts interviewed all stressed that parents don't need to invest in fancy, expensive toys or videos that claim to build language and intelligence. Instead, they should relax and enjoy their babies -- kids have been picking up language for millennia without flash cards, computers, or undue parental stress. In fact, Golinkoff has coauthored a new book on the topic, Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children Really Learn and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less. She claims that the box a pricey learning toy comes in can be equally effective in developing language if the parent uses it in imaginative play with the baby.

"You don't need drill and practice; you need play," adds Dr. Shapiro, who says that with toddlers, parents should take the child's lead, commenting on what he's interested in at the moment. In other words, don't try to redirect his attention from a fascinating, noisy truck and show him a pretty bird -- go with the flow or you'll lose his interest.

Try using a method known as "joint attention" -- limiting your own talking and giving him a chance to respond, even if it's not with actual words but gestures and/or babbling -- says Diane Paul, Ph.D., director of clinical issues in speech-language pathology for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).

Language experts warn that just plopping babies down in front of a TV is no substitute for joint attention (what the rest of us call playtime). Case in point: A new study from the University of Washington infant language lab showed that 9- and 10-month-olds were able to grasp some phonetics of Mandarin Chinese when exposed to live speakers, but not recordings.

And what about working parents, whose infants and toddlers are in daycare? They shouldn't feel they have to "do more" when they get home. "I worked when my kids were little too," says Golinkoff, whose children are grown. "Parents think they have to make up for it with intense quality time that turns into teaching. But the kids just need fun, warm, loving interaction." Dr. Shapiro stresses, however, that the quality of daycare is critical and that parents should visit the center and pay attention not only to the caregiver-to-child ratio but also to the time caregivers spend talking and reading to children.