There are a number of ways that children learn to speak at home; it can be through infant and parental interaction, imitation, and reinforcement. With all of these proper parenting techniques, most children learn to speak by the age of two, and sometimes even earlier. What most psychologists agree upon is the importance of speaking with infants.
Children begin to learn about the world around them even before they are born. During the last four months of pregnancy, babies in the womb are able to hear the mother speaking and singing. This is why infants can instantly recognize their mother at birth. Although they cannot speak with words, infants communicate their needs and wants with their parents through crying, smiling, and babbling. A study published in First Language in 1989 states that “the first stages of language being in infancy with babbling, it is the baby talk that emerges when an infant begins to experiment with his or her vocal abilities. Although babbling often seems to have meaning to it, researchers are unsure of its exact purpose.” (Psychology of Language Development, 2010).
Many researchers believe that baby talk between the infant and the parent is a critical bonding process. Through this process, the mother and infant not only communicate by baby talk but also learn to react to each other’s subtle movements. The parent mimicking the infant’s sounds shows him or her that they encourage exploration with different sounds and that they respect them. This communication also teaches the child the importance of verbal feedback and the nature of speech. Studies have shown that infants prefer to listen an adult speak baby talk and that it contributes to mental development “as it helps teach the child the basic function and structure of language.” (Baby Talk, 2010).
While baby talk is important for the child to feel encouraged and understood, the parent should also integrate normal speech as well. Infant-directed-speech, or IDS, which is using the same words that would come up during an adult conversation but it is emotionally charged and melodic so that it catches the infant’s attention. It’s very important for the parents to remember that infant’s sense adult’s feelings and may become anxious when spoken to about worries and troublesome topics.
Aside from actual baby talk, crying, and cooing there are many other ways that babies communicate their feelings. They make different sounds when something makes them happy or upsets them. They also have different movements, moods, and facial expressions. Infant’s have different feelings, wants, and needs so it important for the parent to be able to identify these changes and be able to show support when the baby discovers these different moods.
As time progresses, the child will learn more and more words and be able to understand different sentences and try to say some of their own. Many psychologists encourage the parent to speak to their toddlers in clear sentences but in a child directed way so that they will understand. When the child is crying and doesn’t express in words what is bothering them or what they want, the parent should ask them what is wrong instead of just satisfying the child so that they will be quiet. Once the parent asks the question and the child recognizes that they won’t be so easily satisfied then they will reply with a nod, point, or try to say a word in order to hint at what they want.
Numerous studies show that when an infant lives with an older sibling in the age range of two to ten, they are much more likely to learn how to speak at a much quicker rate. This is due to the older sibling’s interest their little brother or sister and them wanting to communicate and behave as a protective and nurturing figure in the infant’s life.
Although talking to infants is considered highly important in American society, in some cultures around the world it’s the complete opposite. For example, in Samoan tribes adults do not speak to their children until a certain age. While in other societies, it’s more common to speak to an infant as if it were an adult rather than with infant directed speech. In these cases the children will be able to eventually learn to speak without difficulty, but not as fast as a child spoken to in infant directed speech would.
Studies and remarkable cases throughout history have shown that there is in fact a “crucial period of language acquisition” which ends around the age of three to five years old. Eric Lenneberg, who wrote the book “Biological Foundations of Language”, claims that if no language is taught in these crucial years of infancy then the child will never learn to normally and fully speak. The most famous case exhibiting this is that of Genie, the thirteen year old victim of child abuse who was strapped to a potty chair for the first thirteen years of her life. She only knew about twenty words which mostly consisted of foul language that she heard from her abusive and mentally ill father who forbade her from ever speaking a single word. After she was rescued, psychologists tried to teach Genie to speak, but she was unable to acquire the language completely. She only learned a couple of words but was able to communicate through sign-language. (Lenneberg 1985)
All of this shows how important it is for children to be spoken to by others, specifically by their parents. It not only encourages the child to learn and explore, but also gives the infant a greater advantage that other infant’s who aren’t spoken to don’t have; they are on a faster track of understanding and vocalization.