The chattering classes foster greater language skills

New campaign highlights how birth to three years of age is a vital time for language development

Tue, Jun 3, 2014, 19:38

It’s extraordinary to think that the baby staring silently at you and the toddler of few words are at the most crucial stage of their lives for language development.

Research shows that in their first three years, children absorb more language than at any other time. Of course, learning is lifelong, but we need a solid oral foundation at this age.

Without sufficient immersion in conversation, it becomes more difficult after the age of three to become a really good language user, says Dr Martine Smith, associate professor of speech and language pathology at Trinity College Dublin. Conversation with a baby may seem very one-sided but tuned-in adults will recognise and stimulate two-way communication.

“We think of children learning language through our talking to them but they have to have the chance to ‘talk’ back,” stresses Smith. Communication is a two-way street long before they are having verbal conversations.

From a very young age, babies will have “eye-gaze conversations” – they look at something, which we then look at and comment on.

It is turn-taking as you would have in a verbal exchange, she points out.

Raising awareness about the importance of engaging with babies and toddlers, to encourage language development, is the aim of a new campaign that is summed up by its title, Chatter Matters.

Both the home and the community are settings for some of the most important learning for this age group, as the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Oisín Quinn, pointed out last month when he launched this initiative by Dublin City Council and Dublin City Public Libraries.

Internationally there has been an increased focus on the “vocabulary gap” between children from different socioeconomic backgrounds, which can be evident before the age of two.

US researchers have estimated that, by the age of three, children in disadvantaged families may have heard up to 30 million fewer words than their more privileged counterparts.

Five-year-old children of lower socioeconomic status score two years behind on standardised language development tests by the time they enter school, psychology professor at Stanford University, Anne Fernald, told the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in February.

Key factors

Parenting styles and home-learning environments have been identified as key factors in this discrepancy, which is why early childhood initiatives try to support parents in the role of the child’s first teacher.


Happy Talk, run in a disadvantaged area of Cork city, is an example of a language development project for children aged from birth to six.

Speech and language therapists coached staff in childcare services as they interacted with children and they trained parents to “model” conversation with their children, to repeat and expand on a child’s words and to comment more on what a child is doing, rather than just to ask questions.

Initially, when the project assessed random samples of children starting in junior infant classes at five schools in the Glen/Mayfield area, it found 60.4 per cent of them were delayed in their speech and language.

“When we reassessed them the following year, the figure had gone down to 43.8 per cent,” according to project co-ordinator Sheila Dillon.



The manger of childcare services based in the Ballybough Community Centre in Dublin’s north inner city, Monica Cassidy, believes one of the biggest barriers is lack of awareness by all adults that children are able to speak and understand far more than we give them credit for.


“We do a lot of talking for children, not giving them time to respond.” She encourages parents of young children to “spend time listening, spend time enjoying them”.

One of her personal bug-bears is forward-facing buggies because when a child is looking at you, it is much easier to communicate; you can also see what they are observing and comment on that.

Obstacles to language development – such as lack of interaction, too much screen time and not enough free play – arise right across the socioeconomic spectrum.

So what can parents and other adults do to help babies and toddlers develop their language skills?

Take time Making time for communication is a pre

requisite for everything listed below and it is also essential for the child-adult relationship.

“All the international evidence would tell us of the importance of the relationship,” says the chief executive officer of Early Childhood Ireland, Teresa Heeney. Brain connections are made from the relationship “and it truly doesn’t matter if you are reading Dostoyevsky or Postman Pat”, she says.

Time pressure deludes us into thinking that we have to teach, teach, teach, says Smith – “whereas in fact we just have to create opportunities to learn, learn, learn”.

She recommends a “soft rain” approach – “where you don’t even know it’s raining but it gets into you. I think that really is the key to oral language and early literacy.”

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