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Language Lessons

From the instant your baby bursts into the delivery room  -- and into your life  -- questions start popping. Who does she look like? What color eyes will she have? Yet it's a safe bet that in those first few minutes, hours, and days, no one will think to ask, "Why isn't she talking?"

The question isn't as crazy as it sounds. After all, if some species of birds hatch chirping a chorus their elders understand, why aren't babies born talking? Experience tells us that a baby won't speak for about a year, and that when she does, her first words are likely to be choppy substitutes, such as "ba" for bottle or "wa" for water. So what gives?

According to the researchers who take those funny babbling sounds seriously, it's not that humans are late bloomers so much as they're early arrivals. Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of The Language Instinct, explains that babies' brains aren't fully mature when they're born. "We squeeze out our babies when they're kind of half-baked," he says, "because humans have large heads, and women's pelvises can only accommodate them up to a certain size." Moreover, Pinker adds, if babies could communicate at birth, what language would they speak? "Language has to be coordinated with other people; babies can't just be born speaking Esperanto."

Linda Weber is a San Francisco-based freelancer who writes frequently about psychology and health.

Getting Wired

The brain circuitry needed to learn language is in place at birth, but the "wiring" hasn't been hooked up yet. For that to happen, neurons must fire over and over again to strengthen connections called synapses. This is where parents and caretakers play a crucial role: Some scientists speculate that what detonates these charges is repeated auditory, verbal, and sensory experience. You say your baby's name, and your baby hears you. Zap. You smile at your baby, and your baby smiles back. Zap. Do this a thousand times, and with each repetition the faint threads of new connections are fortified in your infant's brain until they're like steel cable. Synapses multiply steadily between 9 months and 2 years old. Then, once the developmental synapses required for early language learning are no longer needed, huge numbers of them wither away.

To compensate for the fact that their linguistic circuits aren't in full working order for at least a year, babies have certain perceptual abilities that help them recognize elements of language  -- even before they're born. Peter Jusczyk, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and author of The Discovery of Spoken Language, says that babies' exposure to speech while in the womb actually affects how they react to language after they're born. "We know that infants are sensitive to rhythms and that newborns can differentiate between the mother's language and a foreign language," he says. What they're picking up on is the musicality of the language they've grown accustomed to hearing during their nine-month gestation. "If you listen to a person talking through a wall, what you hear are rhythms and intonation patterns. That's what comes through in the womb," Jusczyk says.

Along with French colleague Jacques Mehler, Jusczyk played tapes of French and Russian to 4-day-old French babies. In order to hear the voices, the newborns had to suck on their pacifiers. When the voice was in their native language, they sucked harder; when it wasn't, they sucked less. Even when the words were electronically filtered to muffle pronunciation, the infants were still more interested in the melody of their mother tongue.

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.

What's Normal?

Language development can vary dramatically from child to child, so most experts spend five seconds giving parents an age range for a language milestone and five minutes warning them not to take it too seriously. What's normal? Normal is when your child is ready. (That said, Jusczyk considers an 8-month-old who utters her first word to be early; a 21- or 22-month-old, late.)

Rose Hamman's first child, Michael, who is now 13, stunned her by speaking in full sentences before his first birthday: "'Go, Mom. It's green,' he would say in the car," recalls the Amherst, OH, mother of three, "and 'No way, Jose,' when he didn't want something done." Doctors had told Hamman to expect that since Michael had been born prematurely and had to undergo multiple surgeries before he reached 11 months, he would have developmental problems. So much for predictions.

Nevertheless, a number of factors can influence when a baby develops language skills. Among them:

Bilingualism/multilingualism. Children born to parents who speak two or more languages in the home or have caregivers who speak a different language may develop speech more slowly than children who grow up hearing only one language. However, multilingual kids eventually catch up with their peers. Pathira Yasotornrat-wu, mother of Christopher, 2, and Katelyn, 1, wasn't concerned when her now trilingual son hadn't said a word before he was 16 months old. "My husband is Taiwanese and I'm from Thailand," says the Albuquerque mom. "I speak to the kids in Thai; my husband speaks in Chinese; and we speak to each other in English. I've been around other kids who speak multiple languages, and I knew they often start late," she says.

Gender differences. Many parents report that girls speak and form word combinations earlier than boys. Summit, NJ, mom Amy Currie, has 2 1/2-year-old twins, Catie and Jimmy. "Catie started talking at around 12 months," Amy says. Jimmy, on the other hand, "consistently did everything from walking to talking two months after Catie. But now they're both about even in development."

Family traits. Children tend to begin speaking around the same time their parents did. Andrea Messina, a Brooklyn, NY, mom says, "My husband's mother claims he spoke his first words at around 9 months. My 2-year-old son, Teddy, did too."

Birth order. Children born after the first baby tend to get less one-on-one parental attention, which can slow their speech development slightly. And according to experts, sibling conversation is no substitute because firstborns tend to give orders to younger siblings rather than converse with them. However, reports from parents on this subject are mixed. Shiela Morton, of Eustace, TX, says that her 14-month-old daughter, Emily, "started imitating sounds four months earlier than my first, 28-month-old Kaylin. I think it's because she's imitating her big sister."

Developmental disorders. Learning disabilities can sometimes cause speech or comprehension problems. For Sharon Roberts's two sons, Clay, 7, and Dylan, 3, a speech delay was indicative of a serious language disorder that runs in her family. "At 22 months, Clay hadn't pronounced a word," says the Gilbert, SC, mom. After undergoing a variety of treatments, Clay was finally diagnosed with apraxia, a disorder that's presumed to be neurologically based, when he was 6 years old. Now he combines sign language with speech.

Hearing problems. Repeated ear infections can prevent a baby from hearing speech clearly, which can affect when she learns to talk. All children should have their hearing checked by 3 months of age.

THE FINAL WORD

Parents are sometimes so eager for their child to begin talking that they're determined to do everything they can to speed up the process. But in this case, biology is destiny. "Can parents make it happen early?" says Tomasello. "No. It won't happen until the child is ready. But parents can delay speech if they don't give the child enough or the right kind of input." The good news is that the single most important thing parents can do is also one of the easiest  -- talk.

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