Unlike humans, animal vocalizations, like those in songbirds, require no experience to be correctly produced. Birds raised in total isolation can still produce mating calls and other sounds. Humans require lots of practice to produce and decode speech sounds. As no two languages are exactly the same, it must be learned or taught.
Two decades ago, scientists thought that basic brain pathways are laid down in the first three years of life. Today, we know that is most certainly not the case. In developmental psychology, the term critical or sensitive period is used to describe the stage in which the nervous system is the most sensitive to environmental stimuli. This stage occurs throughout childhood (starting at birth) and continues weakly into adolescence and even less so in adulthood. A person’s ability to acquire and understand language is heavily rooted in this sensitive time period.
Children who experience more vocal exercises (something that you can’t get from a Baby Genius DVD) had better language skills down the road. Communicating with your child is the best way to help them learn how to speak.
According to the NCBI, linguistic experience is most effective when it occurs early in life. The proof of a critical period is most apparent in studies of language acquisition in deaf children. At around 7 months, most babies begin to babble, deaf infants—at least those who are exposed to sign language as symbolic expression starting from birth—begin to ‘babble’ with their hands at the same age.
However, there are some situations in which normal children were never exposed to enough language. In one documented case, a girl was raised by deranged parents until the age of 13. She experienced almost total language deprivation. Despite intense training, she never learned more than basic levels of communication.
But what are the best ways to take advantage of your child’s critical learning period? According to ZerotoThree, there are different ways to engage your child during their different stages of life.
Birth to 3 Months
- Sing to your baby (You can even sing to them when they're still in the womb! They’ll hear you.)
- Talk to your baby. They won’t understand you, but love hearing you talk.
- Plan for quiet time. (No radio, TV, or other noises)
3 to 6 Months
- Talk to them and smile
- When your baby babbles, imitate the sounds.
- If they try to make the same sound you do, say the word again.
6 to 9 Months
- Play games like Peek-a-Boo or Pat-a-Cake. This encourages speech as well as motor skills!
- Give them a toy and say something about it. (i.e., “The teddy bear is brown.”)
- Let them look at themselves in the mirror and ask them “Who’s that?”. If they don’t answer, say their name.
- Ask them questions. If they don’t answer, tell them the answer.
9 to 12 Months
- At this point, your child will begin to understand simple words. Words like “Mommy”, “No”, “Yes”, “Goodnight”, and “Goodbye”. They will also begin to use their body (i.e. pointing, looking) to tell you what they want.
12 to 15 Months
- Your child will have a grasp on speech. “Juju”, for example, could mean juice. They’ll give you a toy if you ask for it.
- Smile or clap your hands when your child names the things they see. Then say something about it.
- Talk about what your child wants to talk about. Give them time to talk about it.
- Ask about things you do each day. “Do you want milk or juice?”
- Build on what your child says. If they say “toy”, you can say, “That’s your fluffy teddy bear.”
- Pretend play with your child’s favorite toy. This encourages their imagination.
15 to 18 Months
- At this stage, your child will begin to use more complex gestures to communicate with you while continuing to build their vocabulary.
- Give them exercises like “Show me your nose” then point to your own nose. They will soon learn where and what their nose is. Do this with other parts of the body.
- Hide a toy while they’re watching. Help them find it and celebrate with them.
18 Months to 2 Years
- Ask your child to help you.
- Teach your child simple songs and nursery rhymes. Read to your child.
- Encourage your child to talk to new people.
- Engage in pretend play.
2 to 3 Years
- Teach your child to say their first and last name.
- Ask the number, size, and shape of things.
- Ask open-ended questions.
- Do lots of pretend play.
- Don’t forget what worked earlier! If your child still needs quiet time, then turn off the TV/radio and let your child enjoy quiet play, singing, and talking with you!
Take advantage of your child's critical period; if they fail to learn some things, they may struggle with understanding it later. As your child ages, remember what works best for them! Some children may want you to read to them more often, while others enjoy pretend play. But, above all, one-on-one conversations are the most effective in teaching your child language.