Recently I visited my two-month-old grandson for a week. As much as possible, I held him. And when he was awake, I talked to him.
I would look into his alert grey eyes and jabber on and on—about the inch of snow expected, about a book I had read, about what a terrible burper he was. I used the same adult vocabulary I would use to talk to you but perhaps with more inflection and facial animation.
His eyes would follow me but mostly he would listen—listen to me describing the soft, touchable fabric of his onesie, or listen to my theories about why he slept so little. I would ask him questions. “What do you want for lunch? Milk or milk? Do you want to look over my shoulder or look straight ahead? How’s your diaper?” He stared back attentively at first, but by the end of the week when I would talk to him, he would smile, quiver and say, “oo, oo,” the only sound he could make.
Now there is research which confirms that babies not only hear before birth but once they are born, they prefer to hear the language they have heard in utero. Above all newborns prefer to hear the voice of their mothers, but next in priority they prefer to hear the voices of people who speak the same language as the mother, voices with the same rhythms.
We know that phonemes—the basic sound units of language—can be recognized by new babies in the weeks following birth. Previously it was thought that babies couldn’t recognize slight differences in language sounds until the babies were several months old. But now we know that babies’ sound perception and preference begins in the womb.
How can we help new babies to develop language skills?
- Pregnant women should talk to their babies before birth. They should provide opportunities for unborn children to hear language spoken. This can mean babies’ overhearing conversations between mother and father; it can mean babies’ overhearing phone conversations or radio news; it can mean babies’ hearing the mother talk to herself. Little ears are listening, so we should give them language to hear.
- Newborn babies are far from “empty-headed.” Already they have heard hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of spoken language, and have developed a preference for the language of their mothers. Once born, babies are refining their understanding of that language’s sounds as they listen to their caregivers’ speech. We should provide opportunities for babies to hear speech—while mothers are feeding babies, while caregivers are changing babies’ diapers, while grandparents are holding babies.
- Babies’ brains are functioning at an abstract level from their earliest days. They hear phonemes like the sound of “m” in “milk,” and then hear that same “m” sound in “mom,” and learn that the same sounds are used over and over with different results. Years later, they will take this knowledge and apply it when they learn to read.
Did you know that according to a 1995 study*, the most important thing we can do while caring for a child is to talk to the child? Or that the three-year-old children of well educated, professional parents hear three times as many words as the three-year-old children of poorly educated parents?
In fact if you listen to the vocabulary of a child, you can predict his success in life. That’s how strong the correlation is between vocabulary and career success.
Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk to your children, including your babies. If you have never chatted with an infant, swallow your pride and allow yourself to seem foolish. It’s one of the best things you can do to ensure your child’s future success.
*Hart, B and Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore: Paul Brookes.