Language depends on more than just words.  Infants and toddlers watch your facial expressions, mouth, hands and body language for communication cues as well.  Rolling the eyes or furrowing the brow sends a definite message. Just as a deep tone of voice and pointing to the lipstick that was smudged into the carpet, doesn’t require much explanation of your state of mind.

Your child will become a young Sherlock Homes as he tries to understand the puzzle of putting sounds, words and conversation together.  Research suggests that a child has to hear a sound or word 800 times before he recognizes it, processes the information and uses it himself. Guess who provides him with the clues? You! He wants to be just like you, but it is quite an effort that will take place gradually, in small steps.  In order for him to talk to you, he has to hear the sounds, put them together, and understand what they mean.

One of the methods that a young child uses to develop vocabulary is “joint attention.”  If you point or look at an object while you are naming it, your baby follows your eyes and uses his sight, vision, taste, smell and touch to study the object and make sense about the world around him. Soon, if you point to a picture of a dog in a book you are reading to him, he will point to Rover on the floor.  This is a great opportunity to use “dog” in different ways while he is learning the new word.  For instance, you say, “Dog. That is a dog.  He is a fluffy dog.  That is Rover the dog.  The dog’s name is Rover.”  Your child hears the word “dog” five times in a few seconds. When your child attempts new words, don’t correct his mispronunciations, instead repeat the word correctly and expand on the meaning of the word as in the previous example.

When you understand that your child knows what an object is and he is old enough (usually between 12 and 18 months) to say the word, you can use verbal cues to encourage him to attempt the word.  Remember, some sounds are easier than others for toddlers to say.  Here is an example – The child asks, “Wha dis?” You respond, “It’s a ball. Tell me. What is it? It’s a b—.” (Give the first sound of the word). Your child will learn to say “ball.” The learning process includes your child identifying the rise and fall in the pitch of your voice to infer questions.

A child has to be in the “mood” to communicate and work with you. You have to follow the child’s lead. You can’t force communication by drilling words into his head.  He has to be focused and interested in what you want him to say, and it has to be fun.  That is how he will remember it best.  Do you have a good memory of an event that was fun versus a meeting that was so boring you had to use toothpicks to keep your eyes open?   Make conversation fun and meaningful for your child.

You know your child better that anyone else and you are your child’s first teacher. A nine-month-old works to speak one word.  By 18 months, he understands 50 words and speaks between eight to 10 words.  By the time he is two-years-old, he comprehends 300 words and speaks 50 words in two to four word phrases.  That is a great accomplishment in a short amount of time.

Good communication skills will open many doors for personal success in your child’s future. An article I discovered years ago in the American Educator (2003), “The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3,” by Betsy Hart and Todd R. Risley, reinforces my beliefs about the importance of parenting in the communication process. Their research showed that children living in Professional Class homes heard approximately 30 million more words than children in Welfare Class homes, and 10 million more than those in Working Class homes. The research went a step further and compared the children’s success in the classroom environment with their communication skills. Again, there was a direct correlation. Another factor was the way parents interacted with their children, and a more positive manner encouraged learning. Provide an environment that is rich in words and sensory activities that stimulate all areas of development. Be wise and invest the time and education in your children and yourself. You are your child’s best teacher, and as research has proven, education takes place in the home.

languageKathy has 35 years of child development experience and is the author of the My Baby Compass series. She is certified by the American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA), holding both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in speech and language pathology. She gained her clinical expertise working with children and adults with a full spectrum of communication disorders.