When my daughter, Erin, was 4 1/2 months old, she managed to get out two syllables, "ma, ma." Thrilled -- and convinced that I must have a genius on my hands -- I called one of my best friends, a mother of three, to report the news. "She's talking!" I squealed. My friend brought me down to earth. "That's great that she made those sounds," my parenting guru said encouragingly. "But she probably has no idea what they mean. She's just experimenting."
Turns out that recent research proves us both right: Small infants may not think in the way that we conceive of it, but they're using an amazing array of mental gymnastics to decode speech and decipher the world around them.
Talking Is Tough
Consider the sheer enormity of the task. From an endless stream of sound, babies must filter out what's noise and what's language. They must figure out where words end and begin. They must tease out the meaning and intent of what is heard. Then they must teach themselves to make the right sounds, in the proper order, at the appropriate time.
"What's most fascinating to me is that the human mind is able to deal with such remarkable complexities: Babies somehow pull out the sounds of the language, and they do all this well before they're 2 and can tie their shoes," says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, PhD, a psychology professor at Temple University, in Philadelphia, and coauthor of How Babies Talk: The Magic and Mystery of Language in the First Three Years (Plume).
While it's unlikely that preverbal infants think in the way that adults do, studies have shown that in their quest to figure out when words start, when they end, and what they mean, tiny tots use pretty sophisticated methods, such as connecting what they're hearing to what they're seeing in someone's face, or focusing on their own names as a cue that a new sentence is beginning.
"Babies are born pattern seekers," adds Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, PhD, a professor at the University of Delaware, in Newark, and coauthor with Hirsh-Pasek of How Babies Talk. But remember that each kid develops in his or her own way. My daughter has a friend who barely spoke at age 2 but was chattering away and reading by age 4. Of course, your child's verbal development involves interesting aspects at each step, but there are some things you can do to encourage your tot to talk. Here's a stage-by-stage guide.