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.
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.”
Conversation and interaction should be woven into a child’s day, rather than being an activity for which you set aside time.
When choosing an early education or childcare provider, be it for five hours or for 35 hours a week, says Heeney, you should be looking for strong connections and interactions between the staff working in the service and your child.
It’s never too early to start talking to your baby. Babies recognise their mother’s voice from birth.
“In the first couple of years the most important thing is that there is conversation,” says Smith.
The more exposure children have to competent language users, the more advantage they have. So, personally, when choosing a caregiver, that would be a consideration, she says. “I would look to see what language skills this person is bringing.”
Simply bombarding your child with a running commentary is not the answer either. “If the child doesn’t have the chance to join in, it might as well just be the radio that is on,” says Smith. Even at the nonverbal age, make it a conversation.
“The most important thing is to follow the child’s lead,” she stresses. “To follow what they are doing and respond to that, rather than simply trying to pull them into our world.”
“Shared storybook reading is one of the most powerful things you can do to support reading,” says Smith.
Much of the benefit comes from the quiet time, the physical closeness and the shared attention on something, so is an ereader just as good as a book?
The advantage of a paper book is that once children know a story, a lot of them will go and “read” it themselves, she explains.
“It is much harder to do that with an ereader and it is much more distracting. If you read the book, it won’t take them anywhere else other than the book. With an ereader, you can easily get out of that book into something else . . . For that reason I am a big fan of books; if the child rips it, it is not a big deal.
“You have to be enthralled by reading to go through the bother of learning how to do it,” she adds.
Repeat and repeat
Stifle your yawns when a child asks for the same book for the umpteenth time, because that repetition is needed. The more they read the same book, the more they are able to talk about it.
Try changing the ending and see what discussion ensues. With a new story, all their concentration goes into listening and trying to make sense of it.
“The brain learns best from repetition with variety, so that there is structure but there is something new,” says Smith. “There is a lot of research evidence to show that they use much more complex language once they have heard a story multiple times.”
Allow for play
Early childhood should be all about play, because that is how children learn. And a big part of that should be free play rather than structured activities.
It’s evident that many children are not getting the play activities they should, says Debbie Clarke, play development officer with Dublin City Council.
Due to fears about traffic and stranger danger, many can no longer go outside with other children, of varying ages and backgrounds, which is excellent for language development. When play happens naturally, children develop skills at their own pace.
“They wouldn’t think of it as learning and they particularly shouldn’t be made feel that it is part of learning: it is part of being,” adds Clarke, who is one of the organisers of events in Merrion Square for National Play Day on July 6th.
The ability of children to retell stories when they start school is a good predictor of how well they will do academically, says Smith. It indicates an understanding of how sequences are logically ordered to create a whole.
Re-enacting stories with young children helps them to practise this key cognitive skill of sequencing, she explains, which applies not only to story-telling, but also, for instance, to science experiments, working out maths problems and constructing things.
Create an environment rich in print
Children who know their letters when starting school learn to read sooner. However, it is not that it is necessary to have learned letters by that age: it’s simply that the children who have are in a kind of home that stimulates interest in print, Smith says.
“I think it is useful to have letters around the place, so that when you are reading a book you can find a letter and say ‘Where is that letter up on the fridge?’.
“Children have to learn that reading is about decoding the words and that means understanding that a letter stands for sounds.”
Children should have easy access to books – public libraries are a great resource – and seeing their parents read will help foster interest.
The recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics that children under two watch no television (the Irish Association of Speech and Language Therapists says no more than half an hour a day at that age) is, in Smith's view, a good aspiration.
“Their recommendation is because of brain changes that they are seeing and I think we don’t know enough about those to risk it.”
However, she thinks TV can slot in as a language-focused activity: watch and discuss a programme together. As for the increasing tendency to put a smartphone or tablet into the hands of small children to keep them quiet, a book will achieve that just as well, she argues.
“I think, as parents, we are fascinated by what our children will do with the technology and that is our motivation in giving it to them. If we change that mindset, to see what they will do with a book, it can be just as fascinating.”
What is missing from electronic devices, even if they are interactive, is the relationship with the other person, Heeney points out.
It is the human dimension that “transforms the experience” for the child.
Not unusually for a child being raised bilingually, Jakub was quite slow to talk
Jakub Schonfeld, who will be four in July, speaks in a mixture of English and Polish but his mother is confident that fluency in both will come soon enough.
“I don’t correct him; he speaks quite well and understands everything,” she says.
Polish-born Sylwia speaks in her native tongue to her Irish-born son at home in Fairview, Dublin, but does not always feel comfortable speaking Polish to him when out and about.
She has a mixture of English and Polish books at home – including one story that she has in both languages – and reads to him every night.
Not unusually for a child being raised bilingually, Jakub was quite slow to talk.
However, his English has improved hugely since he started attending creche full-time in the Ballybough Community Centre in Dublin last September, while she works as an administrator with the Society of St Vincent de Paul.
Sylwia is confident that by the time Jakub has completed a further year of preschool, his English will be good enough for primary school in September 2015.
The only thing she worries about is the introduction of Irish as a third language. “For a five-year-old child, it could be a little too much.”
Guidelines for your child’s language development
Theory is now reality for speech and language expert Dr Ciara O’Toole, who has two children under two.
Her advice to parents, such as plenty of one-on-one interaction, is easier said than done, she admits. “It is all about slowing down a bit” – taking time, for example, to sing songs in the car and read together at bedtime.
Television has come into the life of 21-month-old Sarah, a little more since the arrival of her five-month-old brother, Joe.
But O'Toole, who is a lecturer in speech and language therapy at University College Cork, believes a balance is fine and she now buys Peppa Pig books to reinforce TV's storytelling.
Motherhood has also driven home to her the importance of repeating words over and over.
“It takes a long time for them to process and understand them but one day they will come out with them,” she says.
She urges parents who have any concerns about their children’s speech to contact their local health centre.
Waiting time for assessments varies but at least get the name down if you are worried, rather than waiting until your child is three.
O’Toole offers the following guide to the “bare minimum” for language development in your child:
Two-three months: starting to make eye contact, with a gaze that follows you around the room, and there should be signs of a social smile
Eight-nine months: responding to his or her name, clapping hands and waving goodbye
12 months: saying single words
18 months: saying at least 20 different words
Two years: speaking at least 50 words and being able to join two together
Three years: saying about 500 words, making simple sentences and having basic verbal conversations