20 Answers about Language Development

By Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell

You’re probably familiar with the game “20 Questions,” right? Just this year parents have asked me more than 20 questions about speech and language development. That’s why the title “20 Answers about Language Development” seems appropriate for this article, which addresses those questions and concerns.

In another article I recently wrote for this site, “In So Many Words,” I reassure parents whose children talk a bit later than they expect them to, reminding them that there is a great deal of variability in the ages at which individual children reach different language milestones. The “average” age doesn’t tell the whole story.

In this article I offer 20 ways to facilitate language development in young children. In doing so I am adapting a presentation that I and my friend and colleague, Dr. Alice Honig of Syracuse University, made at a meeting of the National Association for the Education of Young Children a few years ago. There, our suggestions were directed to teachers, but they are even more important for parents. These suggestions are useful whether your young child is slow, average or accelerated in language development.

Now, let’s go through our 20 answers.

1) Respond to sound with sound, speech with speech. When your baby makes gibberish sounds, make those sounds back to him or her. Sometimes act as though you know exactly what those sounds mean: “Oh, you want to get out of your crib, do you?” Sometimes just make playful sounds back.

2) Find time to “sit and talk” to your baby every day. The care of a baby requires so much time that it can be difficult to find a few extra moments just “to talk.” Furthermore, some parents feel silly talking to a baby. But it is a very important type of interaction. Position the baby so that your face is close to hers and talk away about anything that enters your mind. And be sure to give him chances to “answer.”

3) Make your language clear. Most of us mumble a great deal. Furthermore, we tend to have a lot of different things making sounds at the same time (dryer, dishwasher, radio or TV, phone conversations). Too much noise gets in the way of learning language.

4) Tie words to actions. Use gestures when you talk to your young child. And tie actions to your words. “I’m going to get you a cracker out of the cabinet” (point as you walk).

5) Label objects and actions for your baby. A parent sometimes needs to be like a journalist reporting a breaking news story. Offer a commentary as you go about your routine. “I’m going to put these clothes away, and then we’re going to the store.” Stress some of the key words.

6) Help children communicate with gestures. Play games like “Pat-a-Cake” and “So Big” as soon as your baby can sit up in front of you. With slightly older children, do some pretend play with gestures. As you reach for your toddler in her car seat, lift your arms and say, “You’re getting so big I can hardly lift you out of your car seat.” Incidentally, there are some language specialists who think that very young children should be taught sign language. It is an intriguing idea.

7) Match your language to your child’s language level in some of your speech. This doesn’t mean that you should always talk baby talk or always use short sentences. But if your baby starts calling his grandmother “Monie,” refer to her that way at least some of the time. But use plain and “good” language also; it is important for young children to hear clear adult speech.

8) In your conversation, help children learn to think. Say things that make her ponder or remember. “Where did you leave your sweater?” “We’re going outside for a while before lunch. Go get your jacket.” Such statements help make memory important to the child and demonstrate a time sequence to activities.

9) Remember verbs, the muscles of language. It is easy to think that if your child learns enough nouns, he will know enough words. But language complexity requires sophisticated use of verbs. If you say, “We’re going for a ride now,” stress “going” as much as “ride.”

10) From 12 months on, ask a lot of questions. Nothing facilitates thinking like a question; your child can’t respond to a question without thinking about what you have said. As she gets older and more verbal, answer her questions with a question of your own. Make sure some of your questions allow for multiple responses and do not simply call for one definite answer. For example, when reading a book, pause and ask, “What do you think that little girl is going to do now?”

11) Help your child become a good listener and observer. Call out interesting sights as you ride in the car. Don’t allow your child to have a radio or tape on constantly; encourage playing tapes only when he is likely to be listening.

12) Make certain that much language is happy and positive. Some children hear very few words that aren’t negative: “Shut up.” “Get down from there.” “Don’t hit your brother.” If a high percentage of the words directed to him signify unpleasantness, don’t expect him to want to talk.

13) Help children express feelings and learn words that describe their feelings. “Are you sad today?” “I think you’re pretty angry.” “It makes me feel very happy when you share toys with your sister.” Having words to describe feelings helps a child understand and control those feelings.

14) Be patient when she tries to tell you something and can’t quite get it out. Sometimes young children grope for words and have great difficulty verbalizing something. Many children (especially boys) will repeat letters, syllables or words as part of this struggle. Stoop down to his level and wait patiently for it to come forth. Whatever you do, resist the temptation to say, “Slow down and stop repeating things.”

15) Read, read, read to your child. Don’t let a day go by without reading at least one book to her, preferably two or three. Make library trips family rituals. Let her point to pictures as you say certain words. “Show me the doggie.”

16) Help children begin to see the relationship between oral and written language. This is obviously related to the previous suggestion. With your older preschooler, point to key words. Tell the story of a favorite book and then say, “Unless I read the words that are in the book, the story comes out a little different every time.”

17) Teach words that bring compliments, friends and approval. Is there a more important expression in the language than “thank you”? Possibly “please.” These can be learned at an early age, and they need to be used regularly, by you as well as your child.

18) Encourage simple memorization. For centuries children have loved simple poems and nursery rhymes. Help her memorize a few favorites. And help her learn her name and the names of others in the immediate and extended family. As she approaches 5 years, work on her address and telephone number.

19) Don’t forget songs. Sing (and act out) favorite songs over and over. If it doesn’t produce discomfort, let him sing the songs for family members and neighbors.

20) Listen to your child. I’ve come full circle with this recommendation, as it grows logically from the first suggestion, which encourages you to respond to all vocal outputs. You can’t respond if you don’t listen. Children won’t talk if nobody listens—especially if you don’t!

These 20 answers represent a simplified way of helping you foster language development in your children. You don’t have to memorize them, but it wouldn’t hurt to review them every now and then. Just as your children don’t get everything at once and need repetition and rehearsals, so do you. The suggestions provide a framework for helping children realize their full humanity—the ability to communicate effectively with the other people in their world. You have an important role to play in the process.

Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.