Remember the stages of language acquisition I mentioned? When a child faces challenges in any of the higher stages, we need to go back to the previous ones to check if she has mastered that. In that case, the most important time for development of language is infancy. Read on for how one can provide rich experiences to aid the infant’s speech from birth.
Technically, language acquisition starts much before birth. Sometime between 18-24 weeks of pregnancy, the baby can hear her first sounds- the mother’s heartbeat, the growls of the stomach, etc. Research has shown that the foetus can hear the mother’s voice and other sounds around at about 25weeks.
In fact, in my last trimester, V2 would respond to V’s voice and kick every time she called out ‘babeeee’, or read a particular book to her. It is found that babies respond to lullabies they heard while in the womb.
The baby is constantly imbibing language right from the pre-natal stage. The first step to aid in language then, would be that all family members talk or read or sing to the baby in the womb.
I remember when both my Vs were born, my obgyn handed them to me, to hold and welcome immediately, even before cleaning. The mother’s voice is an important proto-sound and point of reference for the baby. That is, an indication that the same pre-natal life is continuing after birth. Apart from helping her settle into the world, the first few communications are powerful and sets the tone for all future language development.
It has been found that the focusing distance of a newborn’s eyesight is exactly the distance between her face and her mother’s face while nursing. A huge privilege then, for whoever feeds the baby to make eye contact and talk or sing or coo while feeding.
It is also essential that the baby hears other members of the family conversing with each other. Hence, although we nurse and sleep in a particular room, and even through the symbiotic period, V2 is brought out to the living room at all other times where the family spends most of our time.
What to talk
I am often asked what are the topics a baby can understand. Here are some of our favourite things to talk about to babies
Just the daily routine
The weather or happenings around us
Funny stories about members of the family
The birth story
Recite favourite poems or sing beautiful songs
How to talk
We notice, that babies watch us- our eyes and mouths, keenly, when we talk to them. It is essential we look at the baby’s face and talk clearly. Also, a reason why songs or recordings from audio devices do not serve the purpose in the first year.
You may also notice, that a soft, soothing voice (especially of a familiar proto-sound) elicits an imemdiate reaction- of either increased focus or calmess. We avoid speaking to the baby in a high pitch and talk as if talking to anyone else.
Soon, she starts cooing and gurgling at us. When we pause, listen and coo back at her, her eyes light up. This game goes on for a couple of weeks, and soon, she starts imitating our sounds, or atleast trying to.
And this, is my favourite part. We always make it a point to ask permission or tell what we are going to do to the baby.For example, ” Are you ready to bathe, baby?” Or ” I’m gonna pick you up now as it is bathing time.” Believe me, babies know they’re being asked a serious question and watch keenly, and soon respond.
Respectful communication, apart from teaching the child autonomy of their body also gives her the desire to communicate.
The diaper changing station, the bed or place where one nurses the baby, the massage table, dressing corner, and bathing, offer priceless communication opportunities. We avoid any work materials ( sensory stimulation cards, mobiles, etc. Detailed post coming next week) or distraction at these places.
Language through books
I’m often asked by parents when one can start exposing a child to books. My answer is always the same- Now.
Prop up a high contrast book during floor time or a picture book during tummy time. Read a book together before bedtime- babies love rituals! Or simply pick out a family album and talk to them.
Just to make it clearer, here is a small example of how talking to the baby goes at our place.” Hi V2. Ready for your massage? I’m gonna take some nice coconut oil and rub it on you okay? Let’s rub some on your shoulders- first your left, then your right. Can you lift your hand so that I can reach under them? (Pause and help) thankyou! You seem to be enjoying it today. You look happy. Oh, you like me rubbing your tummy this way? Okay, let’s try more circles? Let’s relax on the mat for a bit? Oh you seem unhappy. Looks like you feel cold. Let’s cover you with this blanket then.”
Just a small excerpt but so much opportunity to include rich language, respectful communication and problem solving using real talk, no?
In conclusion, although I keep talking about the baby, the care-giver’s role is irreplaceable – to provide rich vocabulary, be available, model good language and two way communication.