Language development – Part 1: Relationships at the roots

The root of language development in all children is responsive interaction.

Children learn to communicate with others through gestures and facial expressions.

Children learn to communicate with others through gestures and facial expressions.

The development of language is one of a child’s most impressive accomplishments. The root of language development in all children is responsive interaction. That is where the adults who are important in children’s lives – parents, other family members and teachers – come into the developmental process.

Where it starts

Before infants even have a sense of self (knowing that they are a separate person), they notice some actions are responded to and the response is repeated. I cry and I’m comforted. I shake a rattle and it makes a sound. They begin to notice they can create a response. This cause and effect relationship is understood by infants, even though they cannot yet speak or put the concept into words.

An infant acts and something happens – an infant is learning about a two-way process. If the process is with a person, then it is the beginning of communication. When the adult reacts to the infant’s cries, coos and smiles, the infant and the adult are communicating. Using actions, vocalizations, words and symbols to communicate, language develops from these humble beginnings.

Babbling

In a YouTube video of talking twin babies, these twins are not using a formal language, but they are expressing thoughts, observations and feelings in a reciprocal (back and forth) conversation. We do this when we respond to a baby who is cooing or starting to babble. The baby points to a ball and says “Ba,” we respond, “Oh ball, yes that is a ball!” We are enforcing the child’s output of “Ba” and pointing, and the conversation goes on from there. Babbling is a significant milestone in a child’s development and should bring as much celebration and delight as the child’s first steps. So responding to these initial coos and babbling sounds is important! Playing with sound is how babies test the sounds that they hear in their environment.

Imitation

Infants use imitation to test the sounds of their environment. Imitation is a significant strategy that infants use to develop language skills. In the video referenced above, these two children are not using words, but they are taking cues from adults and imitating the phrasing and inflection of adult speech they have heard. They are also using facial expressions and gesture cues they have seen others use when communicating. Our language is fairly complex and sophisticated. Our facial expressions and gestures are less so and therefore more accessible to an infant or toddler. Even when in an environment where little to no speech is used, such as a household where the primary means of communication is sign language, children learn to communicate with others through gestures and facial expressions. The typically-developing young child is attending to and imitating adult communication patterns, whatever they may be.

Verbal and non-verbal cues

All cues used in interchanges between people – verbal and non-verbal – are part of the communication process. Reliance on gestures and facial expressions are appropriate for children, newborn to 18 months old, and they are building blocks of language and communication.

So, what are the sounds, gestures and facial expressions that infants hear and see in your environment? Is there conversation, singing, shouting, smiling, grimacing, hand clapping? What will there be for an infant to imitate? Providing a rich environment of sounds, gestures and expressions for our children helps them to learn language more easily. Remember, “Repetition is the mother of all learning.”

In our next Michigan State University Extension article, we will explore more specific strategies, such as repetition, that support and encourage language development in young children.

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