Now They’re Talking

Tsivia Cohen, AVP of Family Learning at Chicago Children’s Museum, discusses how children acquire language.

Pumpkin Painting in Pritzker

“Are you a funny bird or a crazy bird?” my cockatiel Wild Bill asks himself.  “I’m a crazy bird,” he answers, although he hasn’t a clue what he’s saying.  Wild Bill is not really communicating, only imitating, and, in that way, his amusing tricks are nothing like what children do when they acquire language.

Children’s ability to learn to talk–whether it’s with words, symbols or sign language—is nothing short of astounding.  During the first few years of life, children crack the code of language.  They don’t simply imitate what they hear, they take language apart and figure out how it works, then put words together in novel, sometimes funny, but nearly always logical ways.  How do they do this? 

While some linguists believe that young children are hard-wired to learn language, it’s clear that no matter how innate this ability, they can’t learn to talk without the input of people around them.  As remarkable as children’s abilities are, adults are also pretty clever in how we help children learn to talk. 

Baby Talk Helps Babies Talk
Even the most reserved adults will launch into gooey, animated speech when they see a baby?  Baby talk, or “parentese” draws infants’ attention to language and helps them learn to talk.  For one thing it slows down speech so babies can hear the sounds they need to learn to make and figure out where one word starts and another begins.  (Think about how hearing a foreign language when people seem to jabber away in one long word.)  And those exaggerated facial expressions and shameless baby staring?  Face-to-face time helps babies figure out how to make their mouths do what yours is doing.  So next time you go ga-ga over a baby, remember it’s your job.  Somebody has do it.

Agreeing to Agree
As amazing as babies are at talking, the first words out of their mouths are open to some interpretation.  Some children can learn to sign with their hands (wave “bye-bye,” sign more by knocking their fists together) well before they can say these words.  As for spoken words, caregivers may have to work to understand what the child is trying to say.  “Baba” in one family might mean bottle, while in another it stands for daddy or blanket.  It all depends on the child’s intent, and that’s the remarkable part—that the sounds or sign stand for something.  Unlike Wild Bill, children know what they’re saying.

Modeling the Rules
Just by listening, children detect the grammatical rules and patterns in how we talk.  Baby talk is good for babies, but children also need to hear sentences.  “Layla up,” Layla says, using the fewest words possible to get her meaning across. “Do you want me to pick you up?” Papa replies, extending what she says and providing a correct model.  Children who refer to themselves by name, soon learn how to to use “me,” “mine” and “I”—not by rote but by seeing how others use these words. (No need to repeat “I’m a crazy bird” a thousand times, hoping they’ll imitate you.)  Kids’mistakes makes sense and demonstrate their ability to create novel sentences. “I catched the ball,” Charley says, over applying a rule he’s figured out on his own.  “Yes,” his mom agrees. “You caught it!”

Opening Gifts Together
Language comes in different packages: conversations, letters, emails, stories, jokes, song and poetry are just a few examples.  Experiencing these together expands children’s expertise while building positive associations.  Talking to your child at the grocery store, recalling a recent trip to the zoo, telling stories, discussing a book you’ve read, writing a letter to grandma—all of these things build language.

It’s All About Reading
Learning to read builds on children’s language abilities and on the learning they’ve been doing from the time they’re born.  Children’s awareness of the sounds in words begins when they’re babies, and this “phonemic awareness” enables them to recognize letter-sound connections.  Reading requires knowledge of words, language forms and structures, as well as information about the world.  Reading cannot happen without language but reading to children (and later their reading to themselves) enriches their language development.

“We’re off to see the wizard,” Wild Bill sings, but loses count when he gets to “Because, because, because…” Turning into a broken record, he reveals both his love of repetition and the limitation of his skills.  Unlike every child who learns to communicate, Wild Bill is no wizard.  The next time a child says something that surprises or perhaps embarrasses you, take a moment to appreciate the genius of human beings.

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