By Shuchi Mehta
Nurturing Your Child’s Language Development – A Busy Parent’s Guide
In this culture of oversharing, it’s hard not to compare our lives to the lives of others. Often this comparison becomes so all pervasive and affects the way we see our selves, the way we live our lives, and even the way we raise our kids.
So it’s only natural to look at the Facebook status of your high school girlfriend (who’s now a mom of a 10-month old) that says something along the lines of “Yay! My kid is saying 5 words already!” and become disheartened at the thought of your 11 month old who is just a silent little soul, appearing proficient only in the language of mime.
It is critical for parents to remember that children develop at their own pace with some skills falling into place quicker than other skills. In many cases, your child may have missed a milestone by a little bit and will still end up having normal speech and language development. After all, language development is no easy feat. In fact, it’s pretty much a miracle that we speak and understand each other at all.
In language learning, we experience processes most of us take for granted since they develop through everyday interactions from the time we are born to the present. We receive language input, we process it, we discriminate what to take and what to leave behind, and then modify our expressive language and speech output accordingly.
These complex processes happen in a fraction of a millisecond in the typically developing brain—even more subconsciously than a blink of an eye.
What we don’t see behind the scenes is the delicate interplay amongst billions of brain cells activating and connecting to nerves to send billions of signals to each and every speech muscle or neural pathway associated with language processing.
Okay, this miracle is not quite a fairy-tale wand that turns a frog into a prince, but it’s still pretty magical.
Sometimes, in order to make this magic happen, children just need a little push to get the ball rolling.
In today’s gadget driven world, we try to find an app for everything. Unfortunately, research has proven that more traditional methods such as reading a book, creating a language-rich environment, or just responding in a timely manner to your child is what actually works.
As a Speech Language Pathologist, my colleagues and I cannot emphasize enough that the most important tool for nurturing language development is the parent-child interaction. Even 15-20 minutes a day will work. According to Shonda Rhimes’ The Year of Yes TED talk, “they [your kids] only really ever want to play with you for about 15 minutes at a time [before they get sick of you]”.
So what can you do as a busy parent without a magic wand handy?
Here are some quick ways to incorporate language nurturing into everyday routine:
1.Have a visual plan for each day and talk with your child about it. Picture schedules are always helpful as it makes the cognitive load of planning less abstract since the child has something to look at. Talk about any special activities that may occur. Give the child choices when possible (e.g. holding up visuals, say “should we read book or do bubbles?”)
2.Structure the child’s play environment
- Rotate which toys your toddler plays with every now and then so it increases variety of vocabulary without increasing the sheer amount of toys. Too many toys at any given time tend to just be distracting.
- Keep some preferred toys out of reach of the child, but within view so it requires some form of communication to request those toys.
- Take turns with toys or play with duplicate versions of the toy to promote social interaction during play. Use words like “my turn” and “your turn” with hand gestures.
- When playing with your child, try and finish playing with one toy or doing one activity before jumping to another one. This will help increase her attention span and promote increased systematic vocabulary development and practice.
- Keep interesting pictures or family photos within the child’s eyeshot while diapering to provide context for communication during this time.
3. Repetitive books – During story time, choose books that have a repetitive hook, catch phrase, or some sort of predictable word structure (e.g. rhyme) to enable your child’s participation in “reading.” Some good ones are Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Brown Bear Brown Bear by Bill Martin and Eric Carle. After you have read a particular book a few times to your child, wait and pause between words to allow her to fill in the blanks.
4. Repetitive words or phrases – Within any activity (play or non-play), assign a word or short phrase to repetitive occurrences. For example, while cleaning up the little people in a dollhouse, you can say “good night mom”, “good night baby”, every time you put a piece away. While bathing the child, you can say “wash eyes”, “wash nose”, etc. through all the body parts. This repetition increases the chances of your child imitating your speech.
5. Follow your child’s lead – Observe what they are doing, imitate it, and attach some related vocabulary or language to it. For example, if your child is pushing a small chair across a room, you can help push or push another chair and say “biiig puuuush!” or “we are pushing, we are pushing”. Remember to keep your language output short and concise if your child’s language output is limited. If she is communicating in one-word utterances, you want to keep your sentences between 1-3 words when talking with her or expanding upon what she says.
6. Intonation, intonation, intonation – when speaking in few, small words where you must communicate big meaning, varying intonation is critical. Exaggerate your pitch, tone, and volume as appropriate to the situation to attach more meaning to your language.
As parents, you want what is best for your child and want them to be on par with their peers at all times. Just remember to keep the “whole child” in mind.
Of course, there are times when a professional speech-language evaluation is absolutely advised. For example, at 12 months, if your child does not seem to be babbling, attempting words, or being receptive when you speak to her, consider consulting a Speech-Language Pathologist. It is vital to keep your parental antennas up when assessing your child, but know that spending just 15-20 language-nurturing minutes or incorporating some of these small changes into a daily activity with your child can be just the right amount of nudging your child needs.
More about Shuchi
Shuchi Mehta is a Speech-Language Pathologist by day and writer by night. She graduated with a Masters in Speech-Language Pathology from Northwestern University in Chicago where her unique experiences in outpatient pediatric clinics, schools, and hospitals paved the way for her decision to work mainly in pediatric settings. She has a passion for writing and has written lifestyle and cultural articles for Seattle Magazine, Seattle Bride Magazine, and California Wedding Day. She loves to write about all things, but particularly enjoys writing about her experience as an Indian-American and growing up biculturally. She is currently working on a children’s book using this particular theme. Shuchi’s other loves are her family, pretending to be a hiker and yogi but never having the time for either one, Hindustani classical music, reading, really good ice cream, Hot Cheetohs, and traveling the world with her super awesome husband.
Have a question for Shuchi? Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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