Sure, watching your little one discover their hands and fingers all those months ago was a kick. Then to watch them move on to use them to grab at things and put them in the mouth was, in its way, thrilling Same goes for creeping, crawling, cruising, and (if not yet, soon) walking.
But in my book, nothing in a child’s development is more thrilling than watching language emerge. In the not too distant future (if not already) your little one is going to start talking. By that I mean using sounds that were studiously learned to make in order to communicate.
Baby Talk: Learning Language
Before that occurs, your baby had to make a brilliant intellectual leap which, unlike the first spoken word, is little noticed and often unheralded. In fact, it probably already has happened, but you missed it or haven’t made too much of it. You should, because your baby literally had the most brilliant idea a human ever has (that goes for you and me). It is this: “This sound I am hearing actually stands for something else.”
If you think about, there is no reason that a sound – nothing more than sound waves bouncing around the middle ear – should actually represent something in the real world. Why, for example, should the sound “Ma” mean this wonderful person whom I cherish so much. This brilliant connection of disembodied sound to concrete objects in the world marks the beginning of “symbolic thought”, of your baby entering the realm of the mind, not just the senses. In my book, it’s as thrilling as it gets. Let’s look into it a bit more closely.
“Receptive” vs. “Expressive” Language
The process of language development has actually been going on from the beginning, when your newborn preferentially listened to spoken language and began to process its components. A lot of the human brain is dedicated to decoding and generating language and these multiple language centers have been strengthened and reinforced by those language sounds that your baby has been so carefully listening to.
At the same time, your child began to play with sounds and to learn how to articulate the consonants and vowels and musicality of your native tongue. You noticed, for example, how she strings sounds together in a way that sounds eerily like real speech. But that was not language, until somewhere around 9 months or so, she had her brilliant idea.
After that you wondered if she understood her name or “No!” or bottle, and she likely did. But, as all of you know who have tried to learn a second language late in life, it’s easier to understand (“receptive language”) words than it is to generate the speech (“expressive language) to communicate. Additionally, the oral motor skills involved in talking are incredibly complicated and take a lot of time to master. That’s why a full three months or so go by between the brilliant idea and its manifestation as the much-heralded first word.
Baby’s Learning to Talk
How will your baby best learn to talk at this point? To make a point, let’s do a thought experiment. Suppose you are a mad scientist parent. You want to see how well your baby will learn to talk by keeping the TV on all day (nothing but Sesame Street and Baby Einstein, etc) and sitting him/her in a high chair and making him/her watch for a few hours a day. But no human conversation, just watching TV. How well would your baby learn to talk?
The answer is: not at a whit. Babies can only learn language in the context of a relationship. There must be a back and forth, questions and answers, immediate responses to things that have just happened, following up on the infant’s utterances with those of your own. In short, human interactions. TV’s disembodied flashes of images have none of this and, of course, lack the benefit of the communicator having a close emotional bond.
Coaching Your Baby
I could spend the rest of this piece counseling you how to help your baby learn to talk. There really are some good tricks: talk to him/her a lot, narrate what you are doing, ask questions, respond to whatever your child says, read books together, use lots of inflection and drama and gestures in your speech.
All that is fine, but the truth is, you no more have to teach your baby to talk than you taught him/her to walk. In the linguistically enriched ordinary environment that you no doubt are already providing, your baby will have plenty of “language stimulation” to learn to communicate as well as the next guy. (Of course, especially if you are normally a reticent person, you should work to enrich the language in their life by talking and reading more to them.)
But mostly, this part of parenting shouldn’t be another job, it should be another joy. Watch with wonder and awe and delight as your little one enters the realm of the mind and expresses him/her self in ever more complex (and humorous) ways in the months to come.