Supporting Language Development in Early Childhood

supporting language development in early childhood

As parents, we want our kids to thrive. I know I try to limit my expectations of my little guy, but I want to do anything and everything possible to set up the right environment for supporting his language development in early childhood.

As a cognitive psychologist who studies how we use language (or psycholinguistics) I wanted to know everything I could be doing to support the language development in my kid. To understand speech milestones, how language develops, and how I could encourage talking from a young age. Let’s take a look at the research says and see how you can apply it to your life.

In this article I’ll be answering these questions:

⭐ Does talking to your baby affect language development in early childhood?
⭐ What does psychological research say about language development in infants?
⭐ How does language develop?
⭐ How do you apply these findings to your every day life?
⭐ When should you start talking to your baby?
⭐ How should you talk to your baby?
⭐ Is motherese / parentese / infant directed speech (aka “baby talk”) good?

Table Of Contents

Here’s what we’ll be covering, in case you want to skip ahead:

How Does Talking to Infants Benefit Them
Psychology Research Summary
5 Strategies To Support Language Development
When Should You Start Talking To Your Infant?

baby talk motherese

How Does Talking to Infants Benefit Them

So, first of all, does talking to your baby affect language development?

The short answer is yes. Let’s take a look at the psychological research around language literacy to see how.

Language Input: Quantity vs Quality

We know that one predictor of later academic success is the ability of a child to learn language (Hart & Reisley, 1995). And we have the ability to shape a child’s language learning by the language that they are exposed to.

But how?

Language Quantity Matters

On the surface, we know that children whose parents speak more to them have larger vocabularies and are faster at word processing — both for children who speak Spanish (Hurtado, Marchman & Fernald, 2008) and those who speak English (Huttenlocher, Haight, Bryk, Seltzer & Lyons, 1991).

But is quantity the only factor at play? It seems that there are other contributors that also have an impact on language development.

Language Input Quality Is Important for Language Development in Early Childhood

Researchers took a look at how caregivers are speaking to their infants and found that quality of language input is actually a better predictor of current and future language development than just sheer quantity (Ramírez-Esparza, García-Sierra, & Kuhl, 2014).

So, what makes language input have better quality?

infant directed speech

Infant directed speech Affects Language Development

Researchers found that parents who speak motherese / parentese, also known as infant directed speech, or “baby talk” one-on-one with their infant resulted in their children having larger vocabularies and faster word processing.

So, if you’re wondering if you should speak baby talk, the answer is yes! Researchers aren’t sure exactly why it works, but they speculate that the slowed down cadence and overenunciation may help babies understand the word boundaries.

And, babies typically prefer to listen to baby talk than adult directed speech, when given a choice (Fernald, 1985). The exception to this is children with autism spectrum disorder, whose preference is towards non-speech sounds over motherese speech (Kuhl, Coffy-Corina, Padden & Dawson, 2005).

Social Interaction Impacts Infant Speech Development

Another important factor to language development in early childhood: social interaction.

Researchers have proposed that learning of a language is gated by social interaction (Kuhl, 2007). Why would this be the case? Because think about all of the sounds and actions in the world — how is a baby supposed to prioritize the stimuli that means the most to them? If it’s socially meaningful then it will probably have a more relevant impact on their lives and they should prioritize it.

Additionally, in a study that looked at 9 month old babies learning a new language, it was critical that a human be present (Kuhl, Tsao & Liu, 2003). When babies were exposed to the new language through video or audio-only recordings, they didn’t learn anything — only when a live human delivered the same exact content (Kuhl, et al., 2003).

language development in infants

Psychology Research Summary

So, let’s recap:

1. Early language development is associated with later academic success

2. Quality language input is critical for supporting language development in early childhood, in addition to the quantity of exposure

3. Infant directed speech, also known as Motherese or “baby talk” helps infants process language

4. Learning language is gated by social interaction

Here are 5 ways to apply these findings to your life, to encourage speech development

1. Speak directly to your infant

Speaking to your infant is important. And the quality of how we speak to them is important too. Infants don’t get the language benefits from listening to someone speak on TV — it’s only if there is a live human speaking to them in the room. And infants don’t get the language benefits from just overhearing people talk around them.

Make Eye Contact

Speak to your baby as you would another adult — directly to them, making eye contact and involving them in the conversation as a dialog partner. Look and listen to what they’re interested in — follow their gaze and see what holds their interest. Talk to them about that.

Use visual imagery

Give them something visually interesting to look at and tell them about it. Like any photo only flashcards (you’ll want to leave off any letters or words for infants since they aren’t ready for that yet).

Sing songs and Rhymes

Make it engaging and an experience they’ll feel included in. Infants love songs. Pair visuals like felt or toy farm animals, or farm animal cards and sing Old McDonald making fun animal sounds for each one.

The important thing is that you’re treating them as conversational partners — talking to them directly, and engaging them in a way that takes their interests into account.

Remember that language learning is a social activity and our human nature is to prioritize learning when we think it’s meaningful and relevant to our lives.

supporting language development in early childhood

2. Use infant directed speech, or motherese / parentese

I have to admit that before becoming a mom, the idea of speaking “baby talk” wasn’t something I thought I’d ever do. Then my little guy came along, I fell in love, and I just wanted to gush and coo all the time.

And although researchers aren’t sure exactly why it works, parents who speak to their babies with infant-directed speech, as opposed to adult-directed speech, help their kids learn language. This is an easy strategy to support to support language development in early childhood!

One note here is that this is only referring to the pitch and cadence of speech — usually it’s a higher pitch and more of a sing-song drawn out cadence. It doesn’t mean you should use improper grammar – you always want to set a great example with properly formed sentences . Don’t use statements like “her said her be right back” mimicking the early language mistakes that kids make when they are learning to speak.

3. Expose Your Child to A Wide Range of Vocabulary

So, once you get how to communicate down from the steps above, now let’s focus on the quantity part. Expose your kiddo to lots of wonderful, rich words to promote your infant’s vocabulary development. I love to do this through 3 part nomenclature cards – which you can pick up in my shop, or you can make your own.

The goal here is to expose your child to developmentally relevant information at the right time. As infants this means just photos without any written words or letters. They are visually stimulating for babies, and give them something interesting to look at, and it gives you a topic to talk about. Fill their minds with a range of topics — different animal types, transportation, everyday household objects. You can use rich, descriptive adjectives to describe what’s in the picture, discussing the colors, textures, what’s going on in the photo, a story about how they got there.

As infants they are listening to how you speak — your grammar, cadence, emphasis, which phonemes are regionally relevant — and you’re providing them with a wealth of information for them to process.

infant directed speech

4. Follow the Child

If you leverage your child’s natural interests, it makes learning easier and they can absorb more information. A lot of times, we decide as adults that the child needs to learn a certain idea and we try to convince them of it. Instead, if we follow the child, and dig into their natural interests, it can be a much more organic process. This looks different at different ages, but the idea is the same.

Observe Infant Interests

For infants, follow their gaze and talk about what they’re looking at. Observe and see what delights them and where they focus their attention the most. When you figure out their interests, give them more activities like that to let them explore more. Whether that’s sensory objects, visual imagery, problem-solving, books, or singing songs.

Work Collaboratively with Toddlers

Toddlers can be more vocal about their interests, and you can start to see more about what captivates them. For example, my son (now a toddler) has always been really into physical problem-solving. As an infant, his first toy was the Montessori ball drop and once he understood it, he was hooked. From there he worked tirelessly on peg-in-the-hole types of activities and I just kept giving him smaller and smaller ones as his skills progressed.

Now, as a toddler he is really into jigsaw puzzles. He’ll spend hours working on a puzzle independently, but we also make it a collaborative activity and use that as an opportunity to work on his language skills. Because he’s internally motivated to put the puzzle together, and I’m helping him, he’s motivated to understand my words. For example, instead of showing him how a piece fits, I’ll describe it. Oh, I see a yellow piece of the bird’s wing! Maybe you need to turn it to the right? Can you put it under the green one? Words like yellow, green, turn, right, under all have important meaning to his task, helping him understand context and in turn, meaning.

We also use puzzles as a source of vocabulary building in addition to directional and collaborative word practice. I pick puzzles with animals that I know he’ll be interested in. We study the coloring as we put it together. We wonder what the animal is — and we look it up. He’s naturally curious about it, and we look up facts about the animals and we learn as we go.

5. Social Interaction is Critical To Learning Language

I think it’s critical to remember that as humans, our learning is through the lens of being social creatures. We don’t just absorb any and all stimuli. Our brains prioritize learning based on what’s going to be the most useful to us — and that prioritization seems to be influenced by social interaction. That means knowing that human interaction, genuine interest, respectful dialogs with our babies are truly impactful to their learning. I think keeping that in the back of our minds will influence all of our interactions with them, for a positive influence.

When Should You Start Talking to Your Infant?

It’s never too early to start! A recent study shows that babies are listening to their mom’s voice during the last 10 weeks of the pregnancy. Specifically newborns just a few hours old are able to identify certain speech sounds of the mother’s language at birth. And this skill of recognizing regional phonemes is an early indicator of language development in early childhood. It’s truly remarkable that newborn language is starting to happen this quickly!

Using the 5 tips in this article, I hope it gives you some ideas of useful ways to talk to your infant that will encourage your little one’s speech development.

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Fernald, A. (1985). Four-month-old infants prefer to listen to motherese. Infant Behavior & Development, 8(2), 181–195.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Paul H Brookes Publishing.

Hurtado, N., Marchman, V.A. and Fernald, A. (2008), Does input influence uptake? Links between maternal talk, processing speed and vocabulary size in Spanish-learning children. Developmental Science, 11: F31-F39.

Huttenlocher, J., Haight, W., Bryk, A., Seltzer, M., & Lyons, T. (1991). Early vocabulary growth: Relation to language input and gender. Developmental Psychology, 27(2), 236–248. APA PsycNet

Kuhl P. K. (2007). Is speech learning ‘gated’ by the social brain?. Developmental science, 10(1), 110–120.

Kuhl, P.K., Coffey-Corina, S., Padden, D., & Dawson, G. (2005). Links between social and linguistic processing of speech in preschool children with autism: behavioral and electrophysiological evidence. Developmental Science, 8, 1–12.

Kuhl, P.K., Tsao, F.-M., & Liu, H.-M. (2003). Foreign-language experience in
infancy: effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 100, 9096–9101.

Ramírez-Esparza, N., García-Sierra, A. and Kuhl, P.K. (2014), Look who’s talking: speech style and social context in language input to infants are linked to concurrent and future speech development. Dev Sci, 17: 880-891.

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