Baby talk: how to help kids discover language

Speech therapist Shanon McCullogh at home with her baby Heath.
Speech therapist Shanon McCullogh at home with her baby Heath. Photo: Jason Dorday/Fairfax NZ

I have always hated baby talk. The sing-song intonation, the goo-goo-gas, the high-pitched repetition.

People who speak to each other and their pets like they are toddlers send a prickle down my spine. Why do you even need to speak to a baby like that? Can't you just speak to them normally?

Then I gave birth to my own tiny human. I realised there is something about that scrunched-up little face and tiny little nose that is all-powerful. I witnessed even the grizzliest back-country farmer dissolve into a puddle of coos. Few adults were impervious (or if they were, they had a heart made of stone and couldn't they see my baby was the cutest ever?).

But one can only coo so much.

When I got home, and the visitors left, I realised I had no idea what I was meant to say to this bundle all day. "Well, baby," I tried. "It's just me and you." The words sounded weird, bouncing off the walls of the empty living room. It was so quiet. I turned on the radio, to Missy Elliott's new song. "Stickin' out your tongue, but you know you're too young," I sang, throwing in a shimmy so my baby knew from an early age that his mama could dance. He gave me a look that clearly said: "I don't know what you're doing. But if you keep it up, I will never want to be seen in public with you ever again." "Okay," I said, sitting down. "You're right. It's too early for dancing. But should we change your nappy instead?"

And just like that, it began. My life for the past nine months has essentially been me having a prolonged conversation with myself. I'm now so used to narrating everything in my day that when my son isn't with me in the supermarket I don't know who to ask; "Do we need Marmite, or peanut butter? Peanut butter?," as he looks off at a particularly captivating ceiling light, "Great idea."

Language, and how well a kid grasps it, is one of the strongest predictors of school success.

Aged five, a child should know how to construct a reasonably complex sentence and understand around 6000 words. Given the extent of my son's linguistic skills ("Ma-ma" while looking at a toy, a book, a flower, his dad, or pretty much anything) this seems about as unattainable as dancing like Missy. As a parent, what should I be doing to help?

In their new book Talking Baby: Helping your child discover language, language development experts Margaret Maclagan and Anne Buckley have collated the most recent research into how babies learn to talk, and created a road-map for how parents can encourage it.

As an adjunct professor at Canterbury University and former speech therapy lecturer, Maclagan has observed thousands of New Zealand babies and young children over 40 years of practice. Buckley, a speech language therapist, was one of her students before the pair collaborated.

The best advice they can give? In the beginning, don't worry how stupid you feel - just talk. When a baby is a newborn the content doesn't matter, and language learning has already  begun in the womb. "They will already know the pitch and rhythm of Mum's voice from being in utero," Maclagan says.

"For a lot of women who have been out in the workforce it can be difficult, especially when we're told talking to ourselves is the first sign of being crazy. But it's really just talking, about what you're doing and what they're doing." And babies understand much more than adults think - one of Maclagan's students was astounded when her 10-month-old baby pointed to a saucepan after she asked him where it was, not expecting an answer.

"There's a lot going on before you hear anything from them."

And as for using baby talk? "Some people do it automatically and it's fine, and if you don't do it, it's fine too. But before they are saying true words, if you can copy back what they are saying – if you say 'ga' back to them – they enjoy that."

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And at all ages it is important to simplify some language to the level the child can respond to and use. Imitating your baby, putting their words into a simple sentence, encouraging what they say through repetition, and talking about what you see becomes more important from about six months, Buckley says. "It's the same as their eating – you don't just give them a steak and say 'off you go'."

Auckland mum Shanon McCullogh is herself a speech therapist, most recently working for the Ministry of Education. With her 9-month-old Heath, she doesn't talk about anything they can't see. She always tells him what's going on, and repeats it using rhyme or songs, so he knows when it's time to be changed or fed.

"It must be a very confusing world, they don't know what's going to happen next or how long it's going to be until the next thing, so I just try and minimise that uncertainty. I just try to make it more fun and interesting."

She'll also relate noises to the environment – if they're walking up stairs she might say "Up, up, up!" in a rising intonation. "I want him to understand the sounds coming out of my mouth are a message, and they relate to what's happening right now. As a parent, it's so satisfying trying to figure out what they do and don't understand."

Most parents just want to be reassured that their child is normal, Maclagan says. The age at which children learn aspects of language varies widely – far wider than movement milestones – and often babies will be communicating more than their parents realise. Also, small children will often have a burst of progress in either motor skills or speech, not both.

So if a baby is more skilled at walking or jumping, they might not talk as much. "When they're younger, I'm more interested in whether they understand what you say. Talking comes much later," Maclagan says.

Exploring books, describing actions, playing word games and singing songs are all great ways to help a pre-schooler learn language. (As an aside, it's thought some parts of human language may have developed from birdsong – which might explain why children love melodies.) But parents should always do what they find fun, and that doesn't mean mum has to get the flashcards out.

"I think it's really important that mothers give themselves time, too. You don't need to be in their face all the time, and if they're on their playmat figuring out what they can touch and reach that's physical development," Maclagan says. "There's so much pressure on mothers, and I think parents just have to be able to find their own way."

Both Maclagan and Buckley would like to see more funding devoted to language development in this country. Major studies in Britain and the United States have found children have vastly different levels of language understanding upon starting school, with some five-year-olds having a tenth of the average vocabulary. In this country no such research has been done, and children with language problems are often not picked up until they have started school – when progress could have been made earlier. "If we could see them when the problem is mild, it would be so much easier."

THE BILINGUAL BABY

Babies are born with the innate ability to recognise every sound in a language, making them perfect little sponges for soaking up more than one at a time.Recent studies have shown this ability to automatically recognise language begins to close within a year – so whether it's Maori or Spanish, it's never too young to start.

As New Zealand's international population continues to grow, and research continues to show the social and cognitive benefits of mastering more than one tongue, more children are being raised bilingual.

Originally from Brazil, Auckland mum Tabata Sommerville had no doubts she wanted to speak to her daughter entirely in Portuguese at home. Gabriella, 10 months, has a Kiwi dad, Will, who also speaks Portuguese.

"We made the decision to speak only Portuguese at home because Will and I have always spoken it, and he didn't want to lose it," Sommerville says. "We've spoken to other Brazilian-Kiwi couples who said they wished they had done it, because when they go back to Brazil it's really frustrating for their child who can't speak to their cousins. It's really important to us that she can communicate with her family."

Sommerville, who was raised by three generations of women living in the same house, plays word games, sings songs, has Brazilian programmes running in the background, and tells stories based around photo albums of overseas relatives. She isn't worried about Gabriella learning English. "She will pick it up regardless because of going to daycare, at school, and everywhere else around her."

But whatever language she is speaking, Gabriella will be given the floor. "I wouldn't like to raise a child who didn't talk about their feelings and emotions, and for me it's important she grows up in and environment where she's encouraged to talk about whatever she wants."

- Stuff NZ