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By Pam Schiller, Ph.D.
Many people think that talking with children is not important because there appears to be so much children don’t understand. This is a huge misunderstanding! Children understand our intonations and speech patterns almost from birth. If they are around talkative caretakers, they understand most of what is said to them by the time they are eight months old.
An infant is biologically wired to learn to speak, but this wiring will not happen without human interaction. A baby can’t learn to speak from hearing people talk on television or radio, or from hearing conversations at a distance. Babies learn to talk during one-on-one conversations as they watch how the speaker forms his/her mouth or moves his/her tongue while talking.
The baby’s brain also forges wiring for the sounds of language during the first year of life, between the fourth and eight month. The brain forms a neurological “community” for each sound in the child’s native language. For English speakers, this is 44 communities, one for each of the 44 phonemes used in the English language. The more a baby is spoken to, read to and sung to, the more distinct each community becomes. By the time children reach age 5, it will be easy for them to distinguish various letters sounds if they have had a rich language experience during their preschool years.
Vocabulary also develops rapidly in the first five years of life. An infant who has a “chatty caregiver” will at 18 months have 181 more words than a peer who has not been exposed to language. By 24 months, this gap will have grown to 295 words and by age 5 to 1,500 words. The more words children hear, the more words they acquire. The more words they acquire, the richer the language that others use with them. Children are more receptive to developing vocabulary from birth to 5 than at any other time in their life. In fact, by the time a child is 5, he or she will have three-fifths of the vocabulary they will ever have.
Children need people who will listen to them and who will respond to their ideas sincerely. This exchange of language nurtures not only the development of vocabulary and sentence structure, but also social intelligence. Humans are a complex interplay between their genes and the experiences and interactions they encounter in their environment. The environment plays the major role ― about 70 percent. Children learn language and social graces as they experience life and as they interact with caring adults.
The time we spend talking with children during the preschool years is providing them with tools they will need throughout their school career. With the proper tools, children will tackle academic and social challenges with greater confidence and they will encounter a much higher rate of success.
Tips for Talking to Beginning Speakers