Hearing your baby utter his first word is a memorable event. And what parent hasn't wished for -- and encouraged -- that moment to come sooner than it does? But it's important to remember that babies develop language skills at their own pace. There are tremendous individual differences during the first year of life, says Dr. Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, director of the Infant Language Project at University of Delaware and co-author of How Babies Talk (Penguin Putnam).
That's not to say that a parent can't create a supportive and interactive environment for language learning. Doctors Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek (the other co-author of How Babies Talk, and director of the Infant Language Laboratory at Temple University) are two key researchers in the field of baby language comprehension and development. They've designed some simple tests that a parent can do at home to help gauge and enhance language development. Below are a few of the exercises to try during the first year. (For an accurate reading, make certain your baby is alert and well-rested before doing.)
In the event your child doesn't respond to or make progress with these exercises, speak with your pediatrician about her hearing and vocal sounds. Ear infections are very common during the first year and, according to Golinkoff, recurrent ear infections can impede language development. But hopefully, these exercises will only prove to be playful, constructive, and full of promise.
- Newborn to Three Months: According to Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek, babies crave interaction and will even try to elicit it with certain sounds. To see if your baby attempts to evoke interaction, place yourself in a position that is conducive to talking to her (no more than 18 inches away from her face) and do not say anything. Present your baby with an expressionless, still face. Listen and look for a reaction from her that may be interpreted as an attempt to get you to socially engage. For example, your baby may sounds or move her arms and hands.
- Four to Eight Months: Babies learn a language by picking up on stress patterns in words (to remember the sounds that they'll eventually associate with a person or object). To determine if your baby is beginning to understand the meaning of words, see if he differentiates his name from a name with similar and different stress patterns.
Stand to one side of your baby, so that he has to turn his head to see you. First, say his name. Does he turn toward you (and note his expression -- expectancy or blank)? If he does turn his head in your direction, wait for him to return his gaze to its original position. Say his name again. What's his reaction?
Now, say a name with a similar stress pattern (e.g., if baby's name is MAry, say TIna).
If he recognizes his name, he may also react (turn his head toward you) to a name with a similar stress pattern. Then try a name with a different stress pattern (DiANE). If he is beginning to remember stress patterns, he shouldn't turn toward you when you say a name with a different stress pattern. If he does acknowledge the name with the different stress pattern, it's possible he cannot yet differentiate his name from other names.
- Nine to Twelve Months: During the last months of the first year, babies become more interactive and initiative. They communicate more with social overtures -- most commonly by pointing or another physical gesture, accompanied by some vocalization and eye gaze, to achieve an end. According to Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek, during these months babies learn that the intention of a point is not the pointing finger, rather what they see when they follow it.
To find out if your baby understands the purpose of the point, direct attention with your finger to an object within close range. Don't point to an object that is making noise (e.g., radio, television, phone, etc.) because your baby may follow the noise rather than your finger's aim. Does she look at the object to which you are pointing? Or is she looking at your finger? How does she respond?
You can find more tests like these in How Babies Talk: The Magic and Mystery of Language in the First Three Years.
M.E.Vier is a freelance writer and editor. She has contributed to YourLookYourLife.com, Mademoiselle and Women's Sports & Fitness.
The content on these pages is provided as general information only and should not be substituted for the advice of your physician.