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Infant/Toddler Language Development and Activities

Updated on July 20, 2010

An Introduction to Language Development

Language development comes naturally, but like a flower, it cannot grow and flourish without care. Parents and teachers have the important responsibility to provide the care that is necessary for language development to thrive. Join me as we explore the development of language. Along the way, I'll offer ideas on activities you can use to enhance language development in infants and toddlers.

Language development of infants

Language development begins before birth. By 25 weeks gestation, a baby's hearing is similar to that of an adult. Research has shown that a poem read or a song sung by a mother while a baby is in the womb is later preferred by infants over something unfamiliar. At one month old, babies can already distinguish between different sounds, for example /p/ and /d/. At 6-8 weeks, infants begin to make cooing sounds, which are usually vowel sounds. By 4-8 months, babbling begins -- consonant sounds are being added into the cooing. By 8-10 months, the babbling begins to sound like a conversation, with accents and inflections being mimicked. Between 8-12 months, receptive language (language that an infant can understand, but not speak) takes off. There are many words that babies understand, but cannot articulate because of the inability to manipulate their mouths.

Simple ways to enhance infant language development

Communication loop/Turn taking - Talk to your baby and pause as if she were going to respond. You may supply an answer for your child after the pause. For example, "Would you like to wear the green shirt or the blue one?" (Pause.) "I think the green one!" Keep in mind that the baby may respond non-verbally. For example, you may say "Peek a boo!" and the baby may laugh. Then you say "Peek a boo" again, and the baby laughs again. This is a communication loop.

Eye contact and shared reference - This is a very natural thing to do with infants. When you see something interesting, get their attention and gesture to show it to them. First you should look in the baby's eyes, and point at the object of interest. Then use a word to get his attention, i.e. "look." You might also touch the baby to get his attention. When the eye contact is made and the child looks at the object, then the communication loop discussed above can take place. If eye contact is not established, try again. If, after several attempts the child is not making eye contact, stop for a little while. Lack of eye contact could mean the baby is tired or overstimulated, and not willing at the moment.

Verbal mapping - This is when an adult gives a running commentary of what is happening. Eye contact and shared reference are very important in verbal mapping. For example, when making a bottle, you can say, "Are you hungry? I'm going to make your bottle. Look. I'm pouring the milk in the bottle. Now I'll heat it up so it's nice and warm. There, now you can drink your milk and you won't be hungry anymore!" Verbal mapping is not just idle talking. There is an effort by the adult to focus on certain concepts and vocabulary. Verbal mapping can expand receptive language, and builds a foundation for expressive language to come later.

Speak slowly, use short, simple sentences, and repeat important words. This allows infants to more easily process talk, and enhance language development. Also, it is natural to talk to babies with lots of variation in prosody. Prosody is the pitch, loudness, tempo and rhythm of speech, and infants respond well to differences in it.

Specific classroom or home activities for infants

Introduce the name of a toy and show any action that it does. Use verbal mapping; for example: "Are you going to look at this block? Isn't it a pretty red color? Oh, this ball is red, too!"

Songs and finger plays introduce rhythm, sound and movement, and increase vocabulary. Infants may attend longer to music than talking. Caregivers should sing the words slowly and clearly.

This video is a great example of making eye contact, and using a song to hold your baby's attention. This 3-month-old begins to vocalize along with the song.

Sharing books enhances both receptive and expressive language. Caregivers should mostly talk about the pictures in the books instead of reading every word. Use lots of expression and sound effects where appropriate. When the infant loses interest in the book, it is time to stop. Don't continue reading to the end of the book.

Use routine activities as learning times. Caregivers should engage in communication loops, verbal mapping, eye contact and shared reference during routines. Feeding and diaper changes are especially good opportunities, as they lend themselves to face-to-face interaction.

Fun Links

Here are some links for more games, activities and ideas.

Language development of toddlers

Around the age of one year, toddlers start to use idiomorphs--basically, idiomorphs are invented words toddlers use to communicate. For example, instead of saying "cat," your child might say "meow." Instead of saying "laugh" she might say "ha ha." By learning your child's idiomorphs you can better communicate with them.

Toddlers use repetition to learn more about language. As soon as they realize that everything has a name, they will begin to ask for the name of things. Your child might constantly say, "What dat called?" or "Dis?" meaning, "What's this?" When you tell them the name of the object, they are likely to repeat it.

Telegraphic speech develops during the toddler years. Toddlers will use two or three words to express what they want to say. For example, "Me drink," "take bear," or "look at book"

Environmental print also comes into focus for toddlers at this time. Even though they don't know how to read, toddlers begin to recognize words like "McDonald's," "Target," and "STOP." This boosts language and early literacy.

A complex skill that begins to develop in toddlers is the use of pronouns. Pronouns can be very confusing. "I" and "you" are pronouns that may be the most confusing, since they change as speaking roles change throughout a conversation. Pronouns are not usually mastered until preschool, or even later.

Simple ways to enhance toddler language development

Communication loop/turn taking - Talk to your toddler and pause to wait for a response. It may be tempting, but don't fill in the response for her. If you do, it will discourage communication. Get close to your child, and use facial expressions that show your interest. If it is necessary, repeat your portion of the communication loop with a questioning tone of voice.

Speak slowly, use short, simple sentences, and repeat important words. This allows toddlers to more effectively process talk, and increase language development. Use lots of variation in prosody, which we talked about with infants. Toddlers respond well to this too. For example, as you're reading a book, give different voices to different characters.

Mediation should be used with toddlers, to simplify things that may be too difficult for them to understand. For example, when reading a book that is too detailed or complex, assist your child through mediation. Instead of reading the words exactly as they are on the page, give a simple summary, or change the vocabulary to give your toddler more understanding.

Specific classroom or home activities for toddlers

Books in the book center or on your bookshelf should be ones that have been read often to your child. With repetition, he will be able to "read" the book on his own.

Toddlers enjoy writing, as they see adults doing it often. Provide different kinds of paper and writing implements. Give your child an opportunity to "read" what she has written and discuss it with you.

Dramatic play is excellent for language development. Toddlers usually are involved in parallel play (playing next to each other, without interacting) but dramatic play encourages interaction. Caregivers can assist children in deciding who will play which role. When acting out their role, toddlers will experiment with language that they may not usually use. Caregivers can model new types of language for specific roles.

This video shows a toddler and a preschooler involved in dramatic play. Notice their language - how they use different words and phrases in their role play than they would at other times.

Art can be used for language enhancement. Keep in mind that toddlers are focused on the process of making the art, not on the finished product. During the process, talk with your child about what he is making, how the paint feels, etc.

The awareness of environmental print leads to some great activities. If you are a teacher, put up a bulletin board with a title such as "Words I Can Read" and attach some examples of environmental print: a cup from Chick-Fil-A, a Wal-mart bag, or an advertisement with some of your children's favorite characters. Toddlers and their parents can bring things from home to add to the bulletin board. If you aren't a teacher, simply point environmental print out to your toddler, and encourage them in their "reading." The confidence that you will build in them is invaluable.

Music can be used to hold your toddler's attention, let them release some energy, and introduce new vocabulary. The rhythm and rhyme in songs allows them to experience language in a new way.

This video gives an example of a song that can be used for infants or toddlers, using rhythm, rhyme, language and movement.

Fun Links

Here are some fun games to encourage language development.

More ideas to encourage language development in infants and toddlers

Share a meal together as often as possible around the table. Turn off the television and minimize other distractions. Use this time to talk about what has happened during the day and what plans everyone has for the next day. Mealtime talk is important. It can help to increase vocabulary and comprehension skills of older children.

Car talk is a simple way to add some extra language to your child's day. Use part of the car ride to and from school or running errands to just talk to your children, even infants.

Bedtime stories are another great tool for connecting with children and promoting literacy as they grow. Reading just one story at bedtime each night can go a long way toward supporting language development.

Giving your undivided attention for just a short time every day is important to all children. Interact individually with each child every day. Share a game with your child, play with one of their favorite toys, or just talk about whatever they would like.

If you are a teacher, these ideas can be shared at parent-teacher conferences, or built into school-wide campaigns. For example, every Tuesday at school could be "Turn off your TV during dinner day," or "Eat together at the table day." A banner could be made for the entrance of the school, and as children go home, teachers could give a friendly reminder.

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