Take Time, Talk: Eight Ways to Support Your Child’s Language Development

By Mariel Kyger, Ph.D.

Like a snowball growing as it rolls downhill, young children’s vocabulary expands faster and faster as they hear more words. However, a constant stream of words from the radio or even an educational children’s video won’t create this cumulative advantage in language processing. Instead, social interaction (the back-and-forth, turn-taking nature of conversation) and talking with infants and toddlers will build their language and communication skills.

This might seem easier said than done. You can’t discuss politics with a 2-year-old. It’s especially common for parents to feel lost for words while trying to engage their babies. As one mom of a 10-month-old explained, “I know I should be talking to him, but it’s so hard when he doesn’t talk back!” Good news: Even if you feel like you might as well be talking to yourself, your little one is absorbing the sounds, rhythms and structure of language.

Here are some tips for starting conversations with young children:

Infants

parenting - LAUP infant talkKeep the words flowing when your child can’t talk yet by describing your own activities and environment. This tactic is called “sportscasting,” because you provide a play-by-play as events happen.

Follow your baby’s attention: “I see you looking at the big dump truck! It makes a loud noise, doesn’t it?” Infants and toddlers learn words better when parents follow their children’s lead, rather than redirecting their attention to another object.

Narrate your actions: While preparing food, you could say, “Now I’m mashing up this yummy banana and putting it in your Elmo bowl.” Narrate your baby’s actions, too: “You’re bouncing up and down in your highchair! You must be excited for lunch.”

Describe objects and events: Again, describe what your baby is already looking at. Things that adults find unremarkable can be fascinating to babies. “This banana is yellow with little brown spots. Mmm, it tastes sweet!” Or, “There’s a squirrel climbing up that palm tree with a nut in its mouth.”

In addition to learning words’ meanings, babies are learning how words sound. They can differentiate between the basic sounds of their native language, called “phonemes,” by 12 months old. The more language infants hear, the more opportunities they have to learn these sounds.

Play with rhymes and letters: Children’s books and songs are great inspiration. Sing to your baby, or make up your own rhymes. (Combine this with the “sportscasting” technique above for bonus points.) Emphasize initial sounds: “It’s the big blue bus, b-b-b-bus!” Or, match final sounds: “Wash the baby’s hair, water everywhere.”

Take turns: Babies learn the basics of the conversation game long before they can talk. If you respond to their babbling, they can listen for your response and reply when it’s their turn.

  • Baby: “Ah ba?”
  • You: “You’re right, it’s a car!”
  • Baby: “Ah ba boooo.”
  • You: “I agree, electric is the way of the future.”

Toddlers

parenting - LAUP Take Time TalkOnce your child starts using words and sentences, opportunities for conversation are everywhere.

Ask open-ended questions: “What does this feel/taste/sound like?” “How did you do that?” And, of course, a toddler’s favorite question: “Why?” Turn the tables by asking your toddler why the sky is blue, and see what explanation she comes up with. “Planning” questions also encourage critical thinking: “What can we use to build a tower?” “Let’s make a sandwich. What should we do first?”

Repeat and expand: When you repeat your child’s words and rephrase the sentence or add more details, your child learns whether his speech was correct, and hears your advanced vocabulary and sentence structure.

  • Toddler: “Big doggie!”
  • You: “That is a big brown dog! Look at his fluffy tail.”
  • Toddler: “I slide.”
  • You: “You went down the slide at the playground. You were so fast!”

Make comparisons: To increase your child’s vocabulary and understanding of the physical world, point out differences and similarities in size, shape, number, color, category or amount. “This toy whale is blue, and this dinosaur is green.” “The forks and spoons go in the drawer, but the cups go on the shelf.” “Who is taller, you or Grandma?”

These tips might seem hard to remember while keeping everyone clothed and fed, but they will soon become second nature – and you are likely using some of them already. Strong language skills will continue to help children once they start school, and young children who understand more words become more advanced readers. In addition to academic benefits, there are shorter-term reasons to boost your child’s language ability. Children may get less frustrated if they can communicate effectively. Language games and conversation can also keep children entertained when you’re picking out groceries, taking a walk or just waiting at a stoplight. Even if you feel silly talking to someone who responds in squeals, embrace the silliness and drop a few rhymes about the bath toys. Your child is soaking up your words every day.

LAUP, a nonprofit that provides and advocates for quality preschool in Los Angeles County, has developed a campaign called “Take Time. Talk!” as part of its commitment to reduce the word gap between children from low- and high-income households. This ongoing project includes sharing helpful language development tools with caregivers, parents, and early educators. For more information, visit www.laup.net/taketimetalk.

Mariel Kyger, Ph.D., is a research analyst specializing in early childhood language development at LAUP (Los Angeles Universal Preschool, laup.net).

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