Ask Susan: On Language Development and Talking Your Baby Clever

Dear Susan,

My sister is a Kindergarten teacher and says that my husband and I are not talking to our two-month-old baby as much as we are supposed to. I must admit it feels kind of stupid to talk to our baby. After all, he really cannot understand what we are saying! Am I right? I would really appreciate your professional opinion.



Dear Ann,

Undoubtedly, language development is one of the key milestones during early childhood development. A significant part of a child’s social and intellectual development hinges on reaching this milestone. Children who experience a lack of language capabilities may become withdrawn, and this may lead to isolation. Another consequence is the possibility of learning difficulties, ultimately resulting in weak academic performance.

From preschool onwards, covering his life-span, your child’s language development greatly determines whether learning is going to be a breeze or a battle. In actual fact, the language stimulation you give your child will help determine how smart he is going to be.

There is a close relationship between spoken language and specific learning difficulties, for example dyslexia. Roughly 60% of dyslexia sufferers were late talkers, states Prof. Beve Hornsby in her book Overcoming Dyslexia.

Contrary to popular belief, language development is not a natural or an automatic process. Everything a person knows or is able to do has to be learned, and language is no exception.

Start early

Your baby’s brain wants to start learning even before he is born, says speech and hearing scientist Dr. Patricia Kuhl. During the last ten weeks of a mother’s pregnancy, her baby starts learning his mother tongue while waiting snugly in the womb.

Within hours after birth, babies are able to distinguish between their mother tongue and foreign languages. This research, says Patricia, sends a clear message to all mothers: your baby listens, learns and remembers during the last phase of pregnancy.

This pronouncement is supported by various studies. During the sixth month of pregnancy, baby already starts to develop an ear, a sensitivity, for his mother’s voice and the particular rhythm of his mother tongue.

A German study recorded the cries of babies between the ages three and five days old and analyzed the sounds. Half the babies came from French-speaking families, and the other half from German families. The scientists found that there is a distinct difference in form and sound between the cries of the babies from the different groups.

One should, therefore, start talking to one’s baby before birth and keep on doing so after birth, thereby developing the architecture of his brain. He is going to need this architecture later to read, learn and think smartly.

Parents, older brothers and sisters, grandparents and caregivers should, right from the start, help to provide the little one with a solid foundation for learning language; they can do this by talking to him.

When? What?

You have many occasions to talk to your new baby during the day for example bath-time, while feeding, when diapers are being changed and in the car on your way to day-care. Talk about the environment, what you are doing, name the streets that you pass. Use the same sentences and grammatical structure, the same words and rhymes over and over. The sooner you start doing this, the sooner your baby will start talking.

It seems as if our brains have been wired to recognize, and therefore repeat certain patterns and repetitions. This explains why babies’ first words are usually mammadadda, yaya et cetera.

The aforementioned is confirmed by research from the University of British Columbia, where scientists monitored the brain activity of 22 newborn babies while they were being exposed to recordings of made-up words. Words that end in repeating syllables – such as “mubaba” and “penana” – were mixed with words without repetition such as “mubage” and “penaku”. The scientists used the latest optical brain scanning techniques and found increased brain activity in the temporal and left frontal brain areas of the infants whenever the repetitious words were being played. Words without adjacent repetitions, for example “bamuba” or “napena” elicited no distinctive responses from their brains. This is one of the first studies to prove an infant’s inborn ability to distinguish structural patterns in language.

What does this tell us?

People are born with the ability to systematically and effectively learn and understand language. It is therefore never too early to start talking to your infant – on the contrary, you may risk delayed language acquisition if you neglect to do so.

Another interesting fact is that people have a passive knowledge of language on the one hand and an active knowledge on the other. When we listen or read, we utilize our passive vocabulary, but when we talk or write, we use our active vocabulary.

Your child develops his passive vocabulary through hearing words and phrases that are being repeated over and over and over. After hearing a word or a phrase repeatedly for a sufficient number of times, the word or phrase becomes part of his active vocabulary. Therefore, the active vocabulary can only develop and grow through the development of the passive vocabulary. Research shows that a child must hear a word roughly 500 times before it becomes part of his active vocabulary.

Ann, it may feel rather stupid to talk to your baby, and yes, initially there is no real verbal response from him. Rest assured, however, that he learns from every word that you utter.

Stages of language development

The first year is regarded as the pre-speech or pre-linguistic phase. Speech development occurs through eye contact and sound exchanges between caregiver and baby. Sounds like dadadada and mamama and waaaa are examples of utterances during this stage.

After this initial stage the one-word sentence surfaces. Between 10 and 13 months your baby will start to say a word. This word will usually be within context, and is probably accompanied by non-verbal gestures. Your baby may, for example, lean over, reach for his bottle and say “botty”. You will then interpret this as “pass my bottle so that I can throw it over the side of the crib again”. Another example is when Dad enters the room and baby responds with “Dada!”  – maybe “Daddy pick me up!” is what he really wants to say.

The child reaches the level of two-word sentences by the age of 18 months. At this stage the sentence has a noun or a verb, and an adverb. This enables the child to formulate a sentence that is descriptive, negative, demanding or inquiring. Let us look at a few examples:

“Doggie small.” (descriptive)

“No egg.” (negative)

“More sugar.” (demanding)

“Where ball?” (inquiring)

We must also keep in mind that two-word sentences are uttered within the context of the situation, and supported or enhanced by nonverbal communication, and therefore young children convey rather complex messages in this way.

Between 24 and 30 months children start to use more complicated multi-worded sentences.

Read to your child

Whereas children’s books are usually graded for specific ages it is not necessary to wait until your child is three or four years old before you start reading to him. You can start when he is two or three months old. The secret, however, is to read the same story over and over. Children love this, especially once they start to know the story and when they can correct you when you have made a “mistake”!

Children who listen to stories from an early age develop a more extensive vocabulary and a good sense of correct grammatical constructs.

According to Dr. Cathy Hamer, research has shown that parents who talk to their children, read to them, attentively listen and react to their chattering, gestures and words, provide their offspring with a distinct advantage. More conversations between infant and parent result in better language development for the child.

There is a significant positive correlation – a strong relationship therefore – between a child’s level of language development (comprehension and use of words in two- or three-word sentences) at age two, and academic results at school. The success of a school beginner is usually a good indication of later educational achievement. Research also shows that parental input, especially in language development, eventually plays a more important role in school readiness than the parent’s career, income or status.

It is free of charge!

Ann, our babies and toddlers are exposed to so many forms of stimulation, for example scientifically developed toys, forms, colors and sounds. Dolls, toy cars, stuffed toys and educational toys are designed and manufactured so brilliantly that we as parents, grandparents and family are spoilt for choice when we go out to shop for the little ones.

This is wonderful, yes, but still… one of the most important “toys” for the development of baby’s cognitive skills is priceless: Regular exposure, right from within the womb, to the voices of mom and dad, teaching him the words of his home language and the sounds of his mother tongue.




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More about Susan

Susan is an educational specialist in the field of learning problems and dyslexia and has a B.A. Honors in Psychology and B.D. degree from the University of Pretoria. Early in her professional career Susan was instrumental in training over 3000 teachers and tutors, providing them with the foundational and practical understanding to facilitate cognitive development amongst children who struggle to read and write. With over 25 years of research to her name Susan conceptualized the Edublox teaching and learning methods that have helped thousands of children who were struggling academically to read, learn and achieve. In 2007, Susan opened the first Edublox reading and learning clinic and now there are 40 Edublox clinics internationally. Her proudest moments are when she sees a child who had severe learning difficulties come top of their class after one or two years at Edublox. Susan always takes time to collect the ‘hero’ stories of learners whose self-esteem is lifted as their marks improve.