Babies are hungry for social attention and interaction and are ready to learn language around the 6 to 12 months stage. Each and every interaction your baby has can be a learning experience.
Remember when you brought your baby home from the hospital after his birth. Was it an exasperating time? Exciting and demanding? It is in this first year, and the two thereafter, that your baby experiences the most rapid growth.
The foundation for language learning starts early, when you gain your baby’s attention, call his or her name, talk softly, hold and cuddle, sing, rock, feed and dress your infant. All of these moments are language learning moments.
How Infants Build Communication Skills
Early on, infants initiate eye contact, enjoy listening to mother’s voice and communicate many feelings such as pleasure, anxiety, surprise and discomfort. Language can be described as the entire communication system through which we interact. This system includes crying, facial expressions, body movements, gestures, and the ability to express feelings and thoughts through words.
Long before speech is acquired, your baby desires to communicate. It is a joy simply to watch your baby and become aware of the subtleties of his communication.
- What does it mean when he kicks his feet and flails his hands? Is he content, happy, and ready to play?
- What does it mean when she screams and turns away from you? That she’s had enough stimulation? That she needs quiet time now?
The first year of life, infants normally babble a variety of sounds with various inflections, first to practice and complete the feedback loop of hearing. At around 12-15 months, first words appear, followed by two word phrases and often times, lots of jargon so that your child sounds like he is talking in sentences.
You Can Promote Language Learning
Throughout all the day’s activities, you can stimulate and teach your child, in an indirect way, by naming his things, singing to him, and responding to his words. Language and communication are not separate activities but are a part of every interaction.
As you play games with your baby, talk to him, point out new words, show him pictures in books, change a diaper, feed him lunch… all of these are opportunities for you to gain his attention for learning.
You are your child’s best teacher. Providing stimulation is a natural part of caring for him while you are dressing, feeding, bathing, and playing together. All infants are different; some thrive on intense stimulation, while others display a more toned down approach. By paying attention to subtle cues, and providing attentive, loving care, your baby’s language skills will thrive to the best of their abilities.
Language Development Activities for 6 to 12 Months
The period from 6 to 12 months is an important time for language acquisition. Infants typically go from babbling to speaking their first words. They also begin to understand and use simple words and phrases.
Parents can promote language development in many ways. Here are some ideas for activities that you should try. Ideally, you can make these into habits that you do without thinking.
1. Talk to your infant
One of the most effective ways to promote language development in an infant is to talk to them frequently and consistently. Use simple, short sentences and exaggerate the sound of words to get their attention.
For example, you might say, “Look at the doggy!” in a high-pitched voice and point to a picture of a dog. By using exaggerated sounds and gestures, you can help your infant understand the meaning of words and associate them with certain objects or actions.
It’s also important to respond to your infant’s babbling and cooing, as this can help encourage them to continue experimenting with language.
2. Read to them
Reading to your infant is a great way to expose them to new words and language structures. It’s never too early to start reading to your child. Even infants who are not yet able to understand the words being read will benefit from the rhythm and sound of language.
Choose books with bright, colorful illustrations and simple, repetitive text. Take the time to point out objects in the pictures and name them. This can help your infant make connections between words and objects, and will also help develop their listening skills.
Reading to your infant can also be a bonding experience, as it gives you the opportunity to snuggle and interact with them in a calm and quiet setting.
3. Encourage babbling
Babbling is an important part of an infant’s language development, as it helps them practice making different sounds and combinations of sounds.
To encourage babbling, repeat the sounds your infant makes and add new sounds to the conversation. For example, if your infant says “ba,” you might respond with “ba ba” or “ma ma.” You can also try imitating the sound and rhythm of your infant’s babbling, as this can help them feel heard and understood.
Encouraging babbling can also help your infant learn to pay attention to the sound of language and to associate certain sounds with certain meanings.
4. Play with toys
Play with toys that make noise or have buttons to push, as these can help encourage your infant to make sounds and learn about cause and effect. Here are a more few ideas for how to use play to promote language development.
- Use dolls and stuffed animals to act out simple scenarios, such as feeding the doll or tucking it into bed. As you do this, name the objects and actions involved. For example, you could say “the doll is eating” as you feed the doll a toy bottle.
- Play with blocks and other construction toys to build simple structures and name the shapes and colors of the blocks as you play.
- Play hide and seek with your baby using toys or household objects. As you hide an object, say “Where’s the [object]?” and then encourage your baby to find it.
- Play with musical toys, such as xylophones or shakers, and sing songs or make up simple melodies together.
By engaging in these types of play activities, you can help your baby learn new words and associate them with specific actions and objects, which can support their language development.
5. Sing songs
Singing songs is a great way to promote language development in infants aged 6 to 12 months. Singing helps expose babies to the rhythms and sounds of language. It can also be a fun and enjoyable bonding activity. Here are a few singing activities.
- Sing simple, repetitive songs with your baby, such as nursery rhymes or children’s songs. This helps expose them to the rhythms and sounds of language, and also helps them learn new words and associate them with specific actions or objects.
- Make up your own songs or melodies using your baby’s name or other simple words and phrases. This can help your baby learn to recognize their own name and understand that it refers to them.
- Use exaggerated facial expressions and gestures while singing to help your baby understand the meaning of the words and the emotions they convey.
6. Use gestures
Use gestures and facial expressions to communicate with your infant. Gestures can help your baby communicate before they’ve developed the ability to use words. It can also help them understand the meaning of words and phrases.
Here are a few ways that you can use gestures to promote language development in your baby:
- Use gestures to communicate with your infant before they can use words. For example, you can wave goodbye or point to objects to help them understand what you are trying to communicate.
- Use gestures to reinforce the meaning of words and phrases. For example, if you say “bye-bye” while waving, your baby will learn that the word “bye-bye” means to wave goodbye.
- Encourage your baby to use gestures to communicate with you. For example, if they want a toy, they may reach out their hand or point to the toy. When they use a gesture to communicate, respond with words to help them understand that their communication is being understood.
7. Provide a rich language environment
Surround your infant with people who speak to them and expose them to a variety of different languages and language experiences. Research has shown that babies who are exposed to multiple languages from a young age have an easier time learning and understanding new languages later in life.
Children as young as 3 months old who have been exposed to a language have an advantage when they learn — or relearn — the sounds of that language. This may be because exposure to multiple languages at a young age helps to develop the brain’s ability to process and discriminate between different sounds and accents.
Benefits of Early Language Development
There is value in early language development, with a number of positive impacts on a child’s overall development and future success. Research has shown that children who have a strong foundation in language skills tend to perform better in school and have higher levels of academic achievement.
The early development of language benefits a child’s growth broadly. Language skills are closely linked to cognitive development. Kids with strong language skills tend to perform better on tasks that involve problem-solving, memory, and attention.
Children with strong language skills are also better able to understand and express their thoughts and emotions, which can help with their social and emotional development. With advanced communication skills, they’re more successful at making friends.
If Speech is Delayed, What Do You Do?
If you feel your baby is delayed in speech and language skills, weekly visits with a speech therapist may help you to scaffold your child to his next stage of development. If speaking is delayed, perhaps an augmentative system utilizing picture exchange or communication boards may help cut down on the frustration you experience communicating. In the long run, recognizing problems and planning a program of intervention are the first steps to overcoming them.
Monica Devine is the author of the book, Baby Talk (Berkley paperback).