19 April 1999

Baby Talk: Parents Do Make A Difference

Researchers have recently found that interaction between parents and children significantly influence the development of effective communication skills throughout the child's life. Parents should encourage childhood chatter, researchers with the University of Delaware and Temple University contend. "Parents do make a difference," says Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, UD's H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Education. "The stimulation parents and other caregivers provide in the first three years sets the stage for effective, productive communication skills that will last a lifetime."

To make their mark, says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University, "parents must remember that silence is not golden!" Babies are pre-programmed to acquire language, but "baby talk" - the strange, sing-song lingo adults murmur around infants - seems to help foster language learning, says Hirsh-Pasek.

Infants enter the world "hard-wired" for language, Hirsh-Pasek says. "Babies are not simply passive, receptive beings who sit there being cute," she explains. "Sure, they're adorable, but they also have very active minds, and they take in everything we give them." In fact, researchers know that a 7-month-old foetus can hear its parents because, like a newborn, its heart rate declines and then returns to normal in response to interesting sounds.

But, forget piping Mozart to your unborn foetus or flashing foreign words at your newborn: "All parents need to do," Hirsh-Pasek says, "is to talk and listen. Babies want to communicate with them. And, when toddlers are immersed in language, they use their language earlier and more efficiently."

Over the years, some experts have argued whether "nature" is more important than "nurture". The researchers steer clear of this debate, since they say both factors are crucial. "We believe the child arrives ready to make sense of many different kinds of stimulation," Golinkoff explains. "But, we also realise that parents' participation is vitally important, too."

Babies can't feed or clean themselves, and they can't walk or talk at birth, Hirsh-Pasek points out. Yet, they're so primed to language, children in many regions pick up two or three different languages with no difficulty. Indeed, between birth and 3 years of age, youngsters go from simply smiling in response to a parent's voice, to becoming "language generalists" and finally, "language specialists," Golinkoff notes.

Between 4 and 8 months of age, Hirsh-Pasek explains, coos and gurgles turn into the sing-song noises commonly called babbling. A 6-month-old might "sing" herself to sleep by saying, "nuhnuhnuhnuh," for example. Parents also may be thrilled to hear babies begin saying "dada" and "mama," Golinkoff says. But, is the baby really talking about mum and dad? She suggests charting the timing of these words to learn whether Junior is naming her parents, or simply experimenting with arbitrary sounds.

From 9 to 12 months, the authors report, babies begin pointing and grunting - as in "eheheheheh!" -which can prove frustrating for parents, who must guess what the child wants. Soon enough, though, babies between 12 and 18 months begin using their first words, from "hi" to "bot-bot," as they realise that words symbolise specific concepts and objects.

A dramatic "vocabulary spurt" may take parents by surprise when toddlers reach 18 to 24 months and begin learning up to 9 new words each week, Golinkoff says. Research suggests that this spurt occurs after children have accumulated anywhere from 30 to 100 words. At that point, they form simple sentences such as, "More juice," and they may ask repeatedly, "Watssat?" or "Whatdat?" meaning, "What's that?"

Now more than ever, Hirsh-Pasek emphasises: "Your child is ripe for language learning, soaking up any words you present." And, when a child enters the 24-to-36-month stage, Golinkoff says, "Look out." As toddlers begin manipulating grammatical rules, they initiate conversations on the telephone, in the kitchen, with parents, or with anyone else who will listen. At this stage, children urgently need to know, "Why?"

By age 3, children are language specialists, ready to tackle virtually any social situation. By understanding their journey to language competence, Hirsh-Pasek says, parents and caregivers can "fully appreciate the amazing capabilities that are present in every child." In this way, she adds, "They can better recognise when something goes awry," while also creating "a stimulating and enriching environment in which language can flourish."