Over the past few weeks, my toddler’s language has exploded. D., who’ll be two in a couple of months, has hitherto been a dedicated babbler; but recently his gibberish has become more and more coherent; he is now making more of an effort to repeat the actual sounds of words rather than simply mimicking the rhythms and inflections of conversation. And now that he can say more words, he’s working on combining them to create phrases.
D. has been the slowest of all my boys to produce comprehensive sentences; my other three were quick to talk – anxious, West says, to get a word in edgewise while they could! But D. – cruisey little dude that he is – has generally been content to just babble away and use his signs to make himself understood. His ability to reproduce complex tunes (albeit without the lyrics) is the one thing that has kept me from questioning the quality of his hearing; I figured that if he could hear and repeat tones (as he did with his pretend conversations) and if I could see the cognitive connections taking place (which I could), then there wasn’t anything that I needed to worry about.
I’ve always been very intentional about introducing my babies to speech. From the moment they’ve arrived in the world I have bathed them in language – words of affection; words of instruction; naming words; descriptions – this has been the poetry of their babyhoods.
I begin by naming everything. Milk, love, warm, toes, cuddle, Daddy, Mama. As I bring them into the wider world and introduce them to more people and experiences, the vocabulary increases. I watch for signs of recognition and build on those connections. We play games to show how we understand one another; Peepo! (they smile and hide), Tickly-toes! (they tuck their feet up in giggly anticipation), Where are your knees?? (they clutch at them and beam with pride as I applaud their cleverness)…
We read books together – we start with word books (with simple but engaging pictures), and books with romping rhythms and rollicking rhymes that we can both enjoy. All of them have wanted to taste the pages at first, but in time they’ve learned to be gentle and to turn at the corners and to avoid standing on the books. They’ve each had their favourites, and I’ve had mine; and by their toddler years we both could repeat whole pages (if not the entirety) of those preferred volumes.
Repetition is key. The words they say first are words I’ve said to them hundreds or thousands of times. Consistency rules; only when they gain confidence with language do they begin to attempt words that are new to them. And then they become veritable parrots (much to the delight of their older brothers, who love to get them to say silly sentences), mimicking every phrase thrown at them. But at the beginning, it’s usually the oft-repeated words that they attempt in their sweet baby voices.
As my babies grow, their language grows too. When they say, “I go’d,” I repeat gently, “I went…,” or interject, “You went somewhere?” As they learn the rules of syntax I am there to offer quiet correction (although I try to ensure that I am listening first and not always demanding improvement of them). Little, consistent, adjustments have helped them to overcome the stumbling blocks all students face in the acquisition of language; conjugating verbs correctly, choosing effective word order, and just making sense of English. I have tried to be gentle and consistent in guiding my young ones towards correct speech while also being sensitive to what they’re saying – which I feel trumps how they’re saying it, most of the time.
Patience has been important in encouraging my children’s speech. Each of my older boys has gone through a short phase of stuttering; they knew what they wanted to say but somehow there was no fluidity in how the words came out. At times like these it has been very tempting to just jump in with what I thought they were trying to say. Occasionally I’d offer a single word as a prompt, but usually I would be very careful to avoid putting words in their mouths or stressing them out by putting a time limit on my willingness to listen. If it was a struggle for them to verbalise their thoughts then I knew I needed to be patient, or they would eventually become so frustrated with me that they’d give up talking to me altogether. I knew it was also possible that my impatience might actually aggravate their difficulties. So I have had to practice patience.
All of these things I have done with each of my babies. It is interesting to me that, even though I have treated all my babies the same, the timing of their transition from signs and sounds to verbal language has varied.
As I was considering all this, with D’s recent explosion of words, I realized that the training process for language is remarkably similar to the training process for life that we, as parents, perform for our children.
We begin by naming everything. Me, you, family, us. We offer simple, clear descriptions: good, bad, right, wrong, clean, dirty. We teach them about the world, and about their place in it. We give them a solid understanding of the rules of our family and the laws of gravity. We teach them what is acceptable, good, helpful, respectful, safe – and what is not.
We repeat ourselves. Oh, how we repeat ourselves! Putonyourhatyourcoatyourshoes… Don’thityourbrother! Eatthoseveggies! Sayyourprayers! The repetition creates meaning and defines expectations. When they’re ready for launch those oft-repeated things will form the foundation upon which they’ll create their grown-up selves.
We offer correction and instruction by example. Just as we offer the correct version of the words they’re trying to say as they’re learning to talk, as they are navigating their way through life we need to offer gentle correction and guidance. We need to model ‘right behaviour’, just as we model proper grammar and speech. If we don’t take the opportunity to guide our children’s language then they will take their major cues from their peers (often incorrectly); likewise, if we don’t teach them how to be good, kind, loving, responsible, and respectful, then someone else’s influence will shape their character (often detrimentally).
And, finally, we practice patience. When I was a little girl, I had a cute poster that read,
Be patient – God isn’t finished with me yet!
I think it appealed to me because I worked hard at being good – but it would be equally appealing to my boys, who don’t (well, OK, maybe they do and I just need to be patient until they get there!). We have to be patient, because our kids are works in progress – and so are we. Funnily enough, I think we are often a lot more forgiving of ourselves for the same behaviour for which we often get impatient with our kids. We think they should have fewer outbursts (while we allow our tempers to flare at them), and govern themselves better (while we spend money too liberally and cheat on our diets)… We have to be patient with them and forgive them for their imperfections, just as we overlook so many of our own faults.
We have to teach intentionally and consistently, model correctness, and patiently mold our kids’ characters so that they can develop into the best versions of themselves. We have to celebrate the small steps they take towards that greater goal – applaud them when they discover their metaphorical toes and delight in their discoveries as they learn and grow. And we have to remember that they will each take those steps towards maturity in their own time.
Learning language and learning life have a lot in common – and with both, we ultimately hope for deeper comprehension and richer expression.