Baby talk is adorable…. when a baby is doing it. When a child starts to get older, it stops being cute and starts being a hindrance. A parent can probably understand what their own child is saying, thanks to constant exposure and practice, but a stranger would have a very hard time communicating with them. As the little one gets to school age, this is going to cause a lot of frustration for both child and caretaker/teacher.
Here are some tips on how to help your child learn grammar, enunciation, and vocabulary before they head to Kindergarten with the baby talk.
Parrot back *all* of the things that your young speaker says. Say it the right way if they misspoke or say it just like they did if they said it correctly. This helps to reinforce the correct way of communicating, as well as letting them know that you heard them and are paying attention.
If your kid says something incorrectly, don’t chastise them, mock them, or tease them. This can make them feel self conscious and less likely to try again later. Simply say it back the right way. It’s easier on their egos, and less time-consuming.
Don’t parrot back poor grammar and enunciation. If your young kid says something like “Me wants ice queem,” don’t say “You wants ice queem?” back to them. Sure, it’s cute when the kid says it, but A) it’s absolutely not cute when you say it, and B) it will not help your child learn to speak correctly. Instead, say what they said, but say it correctly – “You would like ice cream?” Most kids, at this point, will either just nod their head, or they will actually try to restructure what they said to be more correct.
I actually used to get onto my husband, Tyme, about this: When she was younger, our daughter Cara had a favorite stuffed toy called “Snowman.” She had issues pronouncing an “s” in front of another consonant, so she called him “No-man.” Yes, it was crazy adorable. No, it doesn’t help her if we also called him that – I knew that she was working on getting that S out, and if we started calling him No-man, too, then it may have taken her that much longer to give it a try.
-Don’t make up baby words for every day objects. My kids could each say “pacifier” clearly and distinctly pretty early on. Until then, they signed it and tried to say it, but we never modified our word to make it easier for them. We still understood what they wanted, and they understood the word from us. Binkie and Pacie were unnecessary. Kids don’t need crutches… they just need practice.
-Read to your babies and children. Not only is the one-on-one interaction great, the stories help them learn new words and how to piece them together. Let me say this again… READ TO YOUR BABIES AND CHILDREN. Study after study shows that there is ONE consistent factor found in children that exceed expectations academically, and it has nothing to do with race, income, or hometown. It is simply having parents that read to them at home.
-Talk to your babies and children all the time. They will start to pick up not only on words (same way we do, by context), but they will also pick up on the tones, flow, and nuances of the language, even if they don’t understand what you are talking about.
There is an argument that “baby talk” (like “Coochi Goochi Goo!”) is actually good for babies. In my humble opinion, this is only partially true. It’s not the actual babbling noises that you make while you’re baby talking, it’s the sing-songiness, the smiling, the movement, and the eye contact that they dig. You can speak actual English (or whatever language you want them to learn) and do all the same other things, and they will still love and benefit from it. Singing to your children is also excellent.
-Sign with your babies. There is so much research on why this is a good idea that I’m not even going to touch on it here. I’m just going to promise you that it helps immensely – they will communicate and talk a little sooner and have a better vocabulary. It also means more interaction between you and your baby or toddler, which is never a bad thing. Bonus – you will understand their needs and wants sooner, which means less tantrums!
-Don’t limit your own vocabulary for their “benefit.” You don’t have to dumb down your language for your child. Even if he or she doesn’t understand the word you’re using, they will still likely understand the meaning behind the sentence. If they hear the word enough, they will figure out what it means, and then start to use it. As they get older, they will learn to ask what it means.
Use all of your words, all of the time. The only time you really want to simplify your speech is if you are giving them a direct command, such as “Help me find your shoes, please” or “Please sit down.”
-Talk to your babies as if they already speak the language, even if they are just a few weeks old. The interaction and eye contact with time is priceless, and you will get to practice all of the above recommendations. Just make stuff up to talk about – the weather, whatever is on the TV, what you’re making for dinner. Babies don’t care, they just love hearing and seeing you talk to them.
I love the memory of Tyme talking to a three month old Viktor about “the implementation of the TCP/IP as it relates to the 7-layer OSI model,” (whatever the hell that means). They looked him square in the eye and said, quite clearly, “Blah blah blah blah blah.” I was so proud of them… I usually nod and smile like I understand/care about what he’s saying, but they had no such pretenses (and still don’t).
-Use your polite words with them and everyone else, if you want them to use them, too. If you want them to say “Ma’am” and “Sir,” say it to them, really. Hey, they deserve the same respect that you ask of them. If you are not in the habit of saying please and thank you all the time, then don’t expect them to do it, either. Kids will mimic what they hear and know what situations to use polite words in.
I, personally, think that politeness is a load of bullshit, but it helps us all get along better, especially with strangers. So, I practice it, and, therefore, don’t have to preach it. Which is good, because hearing “What’s the magic word?” “Pleeeeeeeeeeeease?” makes me twitchy.
-Throw in foreign words once in a while. The earlier that a child understands that there is more than one word for the same thing, different ways of saying stuff, and that different people talk in different ways, the more their little brains and tougues will stretch and bend. They don’t have to be fluent in Latin by age five, but getting a bit of an education in a foreign tongue will help. Taking them to places where they are exposed to another language will also help. Mexican restaurants count!
In our case, we’re lucky to have family who speak Cantonese and Polish, and Tyme and I both speak a fair amount of Spanish. We also all love listening to foreign music of all kinds.
-If there is an issue or a delay, get your kiddo checked out. Never assume that your child is lazy or “just a little behind the curve.” If there is any kind of doubt, a simple hearing screen could reveal problems with the ears that could lead to a language delay. These delays can really impact your child’s happiness – can you imagine trying to learn about the world and having one of your senses clogged up? You might also find another issue, such as a learning disorder, autism, or a physical issue which is causing language to lag. The sooner you can educate yourself about how to work with your child to help them communicate, the better for you both.
Above all, don’t forget that kids learn by hearing, doing, seeing, imitating, and practicing. Give your kids the gift of communication by assuming that they will learn if they just have the right role models; and then BE that role model.