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Word Processors Extraordinaire—How Babies Learn Language
For most of us, life in these times is a constant struggle to learn to use ever more complicated computer equipment. And despite what they tell us in ads, most of it does not seem especially user-friendly. Our experiences with computers are similar to what babies go through when they learn language—that is, process words. In some ways, they aren’t as lucky as we are: they don’t even have a manual (though many of us don’t find manuals to be all that much help). They have to figure out the system for themselves. But in an important way, they are much luckier than us: they are “hard wired” to learn and to keep on learning. What we have to do is install the “software” of experience and make certain it keeps up with the baby’s development.

Learning to understand and produce speech is at the top of the list of things babies have to learn. It is language that makes us most distinctly human—and able to do things like develop a computer with a word-processing package.

A baby’s word-processing program is incredibly versatile. During the first 6 or so months of life, infants produce all the sounds used in any language spoken around the world. For example, American babies produce sounds needed in Asian languages, and vice versa. But in the second half of the first year, they lose the ability to distinguish between sounds that are not used by their parents and others. One of our jobs is to help them concentrate on the sounds needed for our language and then associate meanings with those sounds.

The Importance of Interaction

It is easy to assume a baby will learn to talk no matter what we parents do. No way. Speech development requires interaction among people; without that, language simply doesn’t emerge. The truth of this has been demonstrated repeatedly in studies done in orphanages and hospitals where babies do not receive warm and loving individual attention, and where there aren’t enough people to talk to them.

Listen and Respond

One of the best things parents can do is to listen to their baby’s earliest sounds and show they are paying attention. It is easy to do this in the course of a normal day. For example, if your baby says something like “Grk” while you’re dressing her, smile, tweak her tummy, and say “Grk yourself” or something equally ridiculous. Her eyes will probably widen, and she’ll probably thrash about excitedly and attempt another sound. She may play this game with you for several rounds. Every time you play the game, you strengthen her expectation that her sounds catch your attention and earn your approval. And, the first thing you know, she will try to repeat your sounds.

There are many ways to spark a baby’s interest in the spoken word. For instance, make eye contact and then raise the pitch of your voice. That will get her attention. And bring toys into the action. Most important, make certain a lot of the words your baby hears have a pleasant emotional tone. Some babies hear little other than “Stop that” and “Put that down.” Too much of that puts a glitch into the system.

In order for our children to become super word processors, we’ve got to talk and talk to them and listen to whatever sounds they make in response. And one of the nicest things is that success in this endeavor doesn’t require any expensive equipment that will quickly become obsolete. This software works day in and day out, year in and year out, and truly opens “windows” on the world for our children.