LEARNING TO SPEAK

During the first twelve months of a baby’s life, most infants will only manage to acquire a slender vocabulary of about ten words. However, in the next two years, that vocabulary will rapidly grow to around 800 or 900 by the age of three when a toddler will be able to understand most adults’ sentences they hear.

In fact, toddlers are so good at learning how to speak, they have no trouble learning two languages well at the same time and are capable of knowing which language goes with which adult.

This tremendous surge in language use and ability is closely related to a child’s general intellectual development and their understanding of the world around them. And while there are marked differences between individual children in how quickly or slowly they learn to speak, the size of a child’s vocabulary is influenced in part by the interactions they have with their parents and other family members.

Parents therefore play an important role in the language development of their child. If you are worried that your child’s language development seems to be much slower than children of the same age, it is worth seeking professional help to have your child assessed for any potential problems.

The task of encouraging your child to develop their language use and vocabulary is a very worthwhile one that will help them gain selfconfidence and increase their chances of learning how to get along with other children in a friendly and productive way.

The first step is to be accessible to your child and to be prepared to listen to what they are trying to say. This doesn’t mean a marathon English lesson whenever they speak, but rather lots of brief interactions that present opportunities for you to encourage your child to say more. For example, if your child shows you one of their toys, instead of simply saying “That’s a truck,” you might invite them to tell you more about the toy, such as, “That’s a great truck, Bill. What sort of truck is it?”

This natural teaching process is called incidental teaching and encourages children to use words in a positive home environment.

Remember too that is not uncommon for two- and three-yearolds to stammer and struggle while getting their words out. Try not to be tempted to interrupt and finish your child’s sentences.

A child’s interest in speaking is also driven by being spoken to themselves. While this doesn’t mean you have to spend all day chatting to your oneyear-old, it is a good idea to point out and name things your child looks at through the day. If they find something of particular interest, get close to them, bend down to their eye level and tell your child the name of the object they are looking at.

Correcting a word that is pronounced incorrectly should also be encouraged, but in a positive way without pressuring the child. Repeat the word and encourage them to try again. If your child makes any attempt at the word, praise them. If not, don’t worry about it and try again another time.

Of course, because of the strong influence of a parent’s own behavior it is always a good idea to make sure you yourself are a good language role model. This is where baby talk is no longer helpful and proper pronunciation and grammatically correct sentences need to replace it. Avoid using very long sentences with many words when communicating with your toddler, but don’t be afraid to introduce new words that will increase their vocabulary.

Young children often enjoy watching their parents going about the house with their daily routines and enjoy it even more if they can help or join in. It is not surprising then that taking the time to describe to your child the things you are doing such as gardening, cooking, taking care of the baby, or repairing something, may stimulate their interest and prompt them to talk further and ask questions.

Similarly, sharing your day’s feelings and experiences helps your child be more involved with the exciting world of words. Talk to them about your day. Tell them something that made you laugh, the people you spoke to, something you saw on the way home from work — even adults sometimes find it difficult to speak about such things and can benefit from the practice.

Finally, no matter what your own interest in books may be, toddlers love to have stories read to them and to look through picture books with an interested adult. Both infants and toddlers should be read to from an early age at least once a day. Make sure you have a good supply of books on hand. This doesn’t take money — libraries are always accessible. However, remember too not to force your child to listen to a story if they are not interested, rather choose another time or topic.

 
Dr. Matthew Sanders is a clinical psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia and founder of the Triple P - Positive Parenting Program.