The quantity of words spoken to your child in the first three years of life is extremely important. Hart and Risley found that the number of words a child hears in the first three years of life was a better predictor for the size of the child’s vocabulary at age 11 than any other factor that was studied including the parents’ IQs, the family’s socioeconomic status, or the school that the child attended1. The more words your child hears in the first three years, the more likely your child will have a larger vocabulary later in childhood. In a recent study, Stanford researchers2 also found differences by 18 months of age in the brain processing speeds of babies that were attributed to the type of language environments the babies experienced very early in life. Babies in higher socioeconomic households – where more words are typically spoken – not only understood more words, but they learned new words at faster rates. These babies also had brain processing speeds that were faster than babies in lower socioeconomic status households – where babies generally hear fewer words. To be clear, it is not the family’s socioeconomic status that is causing the differences in vocabularies and brain processing speeds, it is the language environments.
No matter what your income, you can help your baby learn language skills. Please try these free tips that are focused on the quality of the verbal interactions. I can’t emphasize enough that parents and others should be talking and interacting with their babies as much as they can. It is important for your baby to have both a high quality and a high quantity of language in the first years of life. To learn more about the theoretical basis for my approach to early learning, please go to https://yourbabycanlearn.com/about-our-approach. We use this approach in our programs, of course, but you do not need to purchase any products to use these tips.
Start by talking to your newborn baby in a loving, joyful manner and use the tips below to help your baby learn to understand your language(s). Since the tips are different for babies who have not yet learned 50 words compared to babies and toddlers who have learned at least 50 words, it is important to change the way you talk to your baby as your baby acquires language skills. This means that these tips are not strictly age-based – they are also skill-based.
- Use Parentese:
Use parentese when talking with your young infants. Parentese means speaking in a higher-pitched voice, elongating the vowel sounds, and slightly over-enunciating words. Babies prefer higher-pitched voices. By over-enunciating, you make it easier for your baby to differentiate spoken words. I suggest using mostly parentese until your baby is around 6 months of age, then gradually use less parentese. Once your baby understands at least 100 words, then it may be better to speak in a more normal voice most of the time.
- Frequency Effects:
A new study released in 2015 shows that frequency effects are very widespread in language learning1. This means that if other factors are equal, then a higher frequency of language input led to additional language learning with individual words, simple syntax, verb endings, and more advanced syntax such as asking questions. I suggest intentionally using some words at a very-high-frequency level with young infants to help your baby learn her or his first words earlier. Think of words that you are already saying frequently to your baby based on your interactions with her/him, then repeat some of those words many more times a day. For the most part, select relatively concrete words to learn for these extremely-high-frequency words and demonstrate the meanings of the words numerous times throughout the day. Continue to use medium-frequency and lower-frequency words as well and, of course, continue to talk to your baby in sentences. For more information on frequency effects, please click here.
- Describe Your Baby’s Senses:
Talk about all of your child’s senses. Narrate or describe what your child is seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. Think of movement as a sense and describe how your child is moving. Do this as much as you can throughout the day. Find other people who truly value your baby’s early window for language learning and get as much help as you can. Enjoy the experience and bond with your baby while helping her learn language skills.
- Isolate Individual Words:
In normal speech, one word often flows into the next, making it difficult for infants to figure out that individual words exist. You can help babies learn vocabulary by saying some individual words, then showing or demonstrating the meanings of those words. This, of course, should not be done all of the time because you want your baby to learn grammar in addition to vocabulary. Allowing very young infants to see words at the same time they hear them gives babies more information. Infants may be able to use this information to figure out that individual words exist as well as where the words begin and end.
- Make Language Multisensory:
Allow language learning to be multisensory – instead of simply talking to your baby (where your baby only hears language), consider adding written language so your baby sees and hears words and sees and hears the meanings of the words. For example, allow your baby to see and hear the word hand, then touch one of your baby’s hands and say “hand” again at that precise moment. The reason to do this is because new brain connections will be formed during this experience and the more precisely you match the sensory information, the easier it will be for your baby to figure out the relationship between what you are saying and what the words mean. Also say, “This is your hand!” and gently touch your baby’s hand again as you say the word “hand.” Say “This is Daddy’s [Mommy’s] hand.” as you show your child your hand. For more information on multisensory learning, please read this.
- Teach the Shape Bias:
The shape bias is the tendency of infants and children (as well as adults) to generalize information about an object by its shape rather than its color, material, or texture when learning nouns. Learning the shape bias can result in an increase in the vocabularies of infants and children2.Infants or children who have learned the shape bias tend to learn words at a faster rate than infants and children who have not learned the shape bias. The shape bias can be learned, and is displayed when a child consistently organizes objects by their shapes instead of by color or other often-trivial features of the objects. Please read the section below this about the shape bias. We also have more information on the shape bias here. To better understand the shape bias, please read this.
- Describe Body Parts and Actions in Front of a Mirror:
Play in front of a mirror and teach body parts and do actions with your baby or toddler and talk about what you are doing. Ideally, there would be a mirror in a convenient location so you can do this frequently.
- Use Proper Grammar:
Use proper grammar in front of your baby and he will naturally learn proper grammar. I remember looking up irregular verbs to ensure that I used English properly because I didn’t want my children to have to think about grammar. I wanted good grammar to be easy and natural for them. The way to do that is to use correct grammar when speaking to or in front of your babies and toddlers.
- Listen to Other Languages:
Allow your baby to hear other languages. If you speak another language fluently, this will be easy for you. If not, try CDs or DVDs in other languages so your baby can hear native speakers. Please read more about learning second languages at yourbabycanlearn.com/choose-second-languages.
- Teach Categories of Words:
Teach basic categories of words first. For example, “cup” is usually a category word. To teach “cup” you really want to teach the category of cup instead of making your baby think that the word “cup” refers to only one specific cup or type of cup. In order to teach the meaning of the word “cup,” show your baby many different cups that vary in size, color, design, material, and shape. Describe how the cups are similar and how they are different. For example, you could say, “We could use any of these cups to get a drink.” Quickly describe each cup, for example, “This is a big, white, plastic cup,” or “This cup is small and green,” or “This cup is tall and narrow and made of blue glass.” In addition, you would also show your baby objects that are similar to cups, but not cups. You could point to a cereal bowl and say, “This is not a cup. This is a bowl.” and say “This is a not a cup. This is a can” while pointing to a can. In addition, you would want to have many stereotypical cups included as well as some cups that are not stereotypical. This helps your baby learn the boundary of what is a cup and what is not a cup. Once your baby understands the word “cup” then you could also teach your baby a higher-level category such as “container” by showing a few cups along with many other types of containers. It is now simple to look up definitions of words and say them as you are teaching your baby words and this will help you teach your baby the meanings of words. You could also teach your baby that there are many different types of cups that have category names such as mugs or teacups.
- Name Objects in Your Home:
Name most of the objects in your home. I entertained our babies for many hours by holding up objects and naming and describing them. Use the suggestions from Tip 9 to teach the words in a more formal way. You can also simply name each object and describe how it is used or its most important features.
- Take Advantage of Opportunities to Teach Words:
Name objects when shopping, taking walks, traveling, or playing with your baby. Talking to your baby while shopping is a great opportunity to teach language skills because you may see many different examples of the same types of objects, making it easier for your baby to get a better representation for the words. Traveling is great because you often see objects or actions that you may not see at home, allowing your baby to learn novel words. Playing is a great time to learn words that may be more concrete to your baby, and an ideal time to learn verbs is while your child interacts with toys. In all of these cases, describe or narrate what is happening from your child’s perspective as much as you can.
- Teach Prepositions:
Prepositions are among the most frequently used words in English, yet they are rarely directly taught until the child is in school. If your child does not understand prepositions, then she is missing out on some important words in sentences. If your child learns the meanings of prepositions, then that could also encourage your child to be more engaged in conversations because she would comprehend more. Please try this when you have a minute with your baby and you need an idea of something to do. I found that teaching prepositions was a great way to have fun and interact with my babies while they learned.
- Teach prepositions by using these techniques: 1) use familiar objects or body parts, 2) review the nouns that will be used to teach the prepositions, 3) teach the same prepositions using many different objects and body parts, 4) teach different prepositions using the same objects, and 5) teach from the child’s perspective. For example, to teach the prepositions above, below, and on you could do the following sequence of actions:
- Say “this is a book” while showing your baby a book.
- Say “this is a table” while pointing to a table that is mostly clear of items.
- Say “this is a phone” while showing your baby a phone.
- Say “the book is above the table” while holding the book above the table. Stress the words book and above appropriately by focusing on the book while saying “book” and by demonstrating the meaning of the word above when you say it.
- Say “now the phone is above the table” while showing the phone above the table.
- Say “now the phone is above the book” and demonstrate by holding the phone above the book.
- Say “look, now the book is above the phone” while you move the book above the phone.
- Say “The book is above the table. Now the book is below the table.” and “Now the book is on the table.”
- Say “The phone is above the table. “The phone is on the table. The phone is below the table.” and act out the words.
- Say “The book is above the phone. Now the phone is above the book. Now the phone is on the book.” while acting it out. Speak more slowly than normal, but not so slowly that you lose your baby’s attention.
- Even though you will be speaking slightly slower than usual, please go at a fast pace. All of the above sentences should not take much more than a minute or so. You can give more examples using one body part and one familiar object and you can also demonstrate more prepositions. For example, you could act out and say, “This is a hat. This is my head. The hat is above my head. Now the hat is on my head. Look, the hat is below my head.” Teach your child many prepositions using this approach.
- Use Synonyms:
Use synonyms once your child understands the meaning of a word. For example, if your baby understands the word little, then instead of saying the word little you could say many of its synonyms: small, tiny, wee, minuscule, petite, minute, diminutive, slight, and so on.
- Illustrate Opposites:
Teach opposites by using your voice to impart the meaning of the words, when possible. For instance, you could say “high” while using a higher-pitched voice and moving an object up high, then say “low” while using a lower-pitched voice and moving the object down low. Use the same types of strategies that were used when teaching prepositions and give many different examples with many different objects, when reasonable.
- Use Pronouns:
After your child has learned nouns, use the appropriate pronouns when speaking. Many parents get into the habit of saying “Mommy/Mummy” or “Daddy” instead of saying “I” or “me,” and that gives your baby fewer opportunities to learn the meanings of pronouns.
- Use More Infrequently Used Words:
When talking to your baby or toddler, intentionally use novel words and explain the meanings of these words. Use this tip once your baby understands at least 50 words.
- Read Hundreds of Books a Month:
Check out hundreds of books every month from the library – many different types of books on many different reading levels. Use and explain the words in the books. Reading to a child is a great way to help the child learn new words because there are more infrequently used words in children’s literature than there are in the average adult conversation. While reading to a child is fantastic for learning new vocabulary, there is research showing that it does not generally teach children to read.
- Teach Written Language Earlier:
Reading to a child typically helps the child’s vocabulary, but you can use some books to teach reading skills. Early readers will be able to read on their own and have the opportunity to help expand their vocabularies. I have written about this in great detail, but I just want to stress that most books are not designed for teaching reading. Some research shows that with typical books the average 4- or 5-year-old only focuses on text about 5 seconds per book3. Try to find books where the words are large and more isolated. Please read my tips for learning written language at yourbabycanlearn.com/introduce-written-language.
- Give Your Baby Your Vocabulary:
You are giving your children your vocabulary, so use many words when speaking with your child. You want to use words that you may not use in everyday speech. Once babies have learned around 50 words, use more of your vocabulary with your children and they will learn new words quickly. Using picture dictionaries or other tools is a way to help you teach your children novel words or words that are less frequently used.
- Categorize Objects:
Have fun categorizing many objects with your baby or toddler. Try categorizing the same words different ways and talking about what you are doing as you do it.
- Occasionally, Speak in Complex Sentences:
Speak in complex sentences some of the time. The following is an example of a complex sentence, and it also gets the point across about why you want to use complex sentences: Children who are in households where complex sentences are spoken have little difficulty understanding or speaking in complex sentences; however, children in homes where complex sentences are rarely spoken have difficulty using or understanding complex sentences.
- Ambridge, B., Kidd, E. Rowland, C. F., & Theakston, A. L., (2015). The ubiquity of frequency effects in first language acquisition. Journal of Child Language, 42, pp 239-273.
- Smith, L.B. (2000). Learning how to learn words: An associative crane. In R.M. Golinkoff, et al. (Eds.), Becoming a Word Learner: A Debate on Lexical Acquisition. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Evans, M. A. & Saint-Aubin, J. (2005). What Children Are Looking at During Shared Storybook Reading Evidence From Eye Movement Monitoring. Psychological Science, 16(11), 913-920.