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Talking: Fostering Language Development

When my son Joshua was 8 months old, I was ecstatic to hear him say "huhh" as I cuddled him in my arms. I always said "hug" when we embraced, so I marked the sound as his first word in his baby book. Yet it wasn't until he was 1 that Joshua began to understand that he was supposed to give me a hug when I said "hug."

At around 1, most children begin to sift through words they have heard, attach meaning to familiar ones, and attempt to use them. And according to experts, talking with your toddler as much as possible is key to fostering and accelerating his language development.

The shift from babbling to real words is a gradual process that takes place in a series of steps. First, many babies invent protowords -- made-up words linking sound to meaning, like saying "muhmuhmuh" to indicate that they want to be picked up.

They begin to use words imprecisely at about 1 year, using a word only in one context or too broadly. For example, when he was 15 months old, Joshua called his rubber toy "frog" but never used the word when he saw a frog in a picture.

Between 18 and 21 months, toddlers begin acquiring new words at breakneck speed, a phenomenon known as the naming explosion. "They go from learning one to two new words per week to learning as many as nine new words a day," says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Temple University, in Philadelphia, and coauthor of How Babies Talk: The Magic and Mystery of Language in the First Three Years of Life (Dutton, 1999).

Some experts think that the naming explosion occurs once children discover that if their cup has a name and their daddy has a name, then everything else must have a name too. "Once they make that realization, they want to find out the names of everything around them, so they'll frequently ask 'Whaddat?' " says Dr. Hirsh-Pasek.

Next, children begin to form partial sentences, such as "Me eat!" At this point, they may understand simple grammar, even though they don't follow these rules in their speech.

Children constantly test words and watch you for feedback to help them acquire language, so it's crucial to help your child express herself. "Many studies have shown a strong relationship between how much you talk to your kids and how fast they develop language skills," says Elizabeth Bates, Ph.D., a professor of cognitive science and psychology at the University of California San Diego. Here's how to help:

  • Name the things your child loves. If your toddler is playing with a truck, he'll be more likely to learn the word truck than the word for the stuffed giraffe you're waving in the distance, says Steven Reznick, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • Have real conversations. "Even when my daughter was just a year old, I would ask her about her day," Dr. Bates recalls. "I would pause a little for the answer, even though I wasn't really expecting one. Month by month, she began to use words to respond to me." Speaking with, rather than at, your child boosts confidence in her speaking skills.
  • Ease up on the baby talk. Repeating your child's shortened names for things reinforces incorrect pronunciations. If he points to a dog and says "Da!" say, "That's right, that's a dog." As he learns to pronounce dog correctly, you can add description words, such as "That's a black dog."
  • Stop referring to yourself in the third person. Your child won't learn pronouns until you start using them when you speak to her. Use I instead of Mommy or Daddy. When referring to your child, use you instead of her first name.
  • Turn to books and games, not television. Reading books to your child and playing games such as pat-a-cake encourage interaction, which fosters conversation. On the other hand, even the best children's television shows require little verbal interaction, so limit viewing to less than one or two hours per day.
  • Look for the hidden meaning in the babbles. You may wonder whether your child's proclamations of "ba!" really mean "ball" or are just babble, but it doesn't matter. "Infuse these communications with meaning, even if it's not really there," says Dr. Reznick. By saying, "Yes, that's a ball!" you'll reinforce that "ba" is a sound to make for "ball" and encourage your child to keep up her efforts.