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Language Lessons

Natural Teachers (A.K.A. Parents)

Despite a baby's innate ear for language, learning to understand and use words requires specific input from parents. Babies are particularly attuned to the form of speech known as motherese. When you raise your pitch slightly, draw out vowels, and pronounce words in a sing-song voice, you're speaking your baby's favorite dialect. And the more time your baby spends listening to you, the more time she's cultivating her speech development. Fortunately, motherese comes naturally to parents, not to mention most admiring strangers.

Another way parents can foster their babies' language development is through something called shared joint attention. "At 9 months, babies start following an adult's gaze to objects, and they start imitating the adult's actions with those objects," says Michael Tomasello, a professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta. When parents point to an object while naming it, they're engaging in a special kind of interaction that psychologists call social referencing. "A triangle is formed: you, me, it," says Tomasello. "And this is what language is about: you and I talking about something, sharing attention to a topic."

Jett Bocz, a mother of four in Cartersville, GA, recalls the time her son, Elijah, who's now 2, first repeated a connection between a word and an object, when he was 10 months old. "We live in a town where trains cross Main Street each day," Bocz says. "And every time we saw a train, I would point it out to Elijah and say 'choo-choo train.' Then his brothers and I would move our hands in circles like wheels and make a chooca-chooca sound," she explains. "One day we were waiting at the train crossing, and Elijah suddenly said 'choo-choo' and made the chooca-chooca sound."

A critical factor in whether children are able to incorporate a word into their vocabulary, says Janellen Huttenlocher, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, is the number of times they hear it spoken. A harried parent short on time may think, "Well, if repetition is all it takes, let's just play our daughter recordings of bedtime stories and park her in front of Sesame Street for an hour every day." Surprise, surprise. There is no substitute for live interaction, experts point out. Children benefit from context: eye contact, parents' facial expressions and gestures, objects they can associate with the sounds of words. It even helps babies to study their parents' lips as part of their quest for correct pronunciation. And, of course, babies need and want your company and your attention. After all, you are their primary love object.