From the first days of life, babies can recognize their mother’s voice and even prefer to listen to it rather than other female voices.
It also appears that babies can learn to recognize their father’s voice during the first month of life, but there is no scientific evidence that they prefer to listen to this voice (rather than other male voices) until around four months old.
Babies love it when we talk to them face to face, and are often captivated by the sight of a caregiver’s face talking to them. Recent studies have shown that, during the first months of life, babies tend to pay attention to their caregivers’ eyes, but also explore other parts of the face.
By the sixth month of life, babies’ pattern of looking changes, and they now prefer to direct their attention to the caregiver’s mouth. It is thought that this change occurs during the period when babies start producing their first sounds. So, showing interest in the mouth area might reflect a process of attempting to figure out how speech sounds are produced so they can be imitated.
Towards the end of the first year of life, another change happens. Babies show renewed interest in the eyes and no longer spend so much time watching their caregiver’s mouth. Being able to look to the eye (and not so much to the mouth) ultimately facilitates better interaction and communication with their caregivers.
People talk in ‘baby talk’ (or ‘motherese’ as it is sometimes referred to) very spontaneously whenever they are around babies. This is a good thing. Babies often show more interest when we speak in this way. Several studies have even shown that this way of speaking (which is more melodic, repetitive and slow) is good for language learning. In particular it helps babies to make sense of the sound system of their language and to recognize words in the speech stream.
However, baby talk is not used in the same way throughout childhood. Caregivers naturally adapt this way of talking over the first years of life, adjusting how they talk to the developmental level their child is at that –a process that gradually results in talking in an adult like manner.
Singing nursery rhymes and other sounds is something many parents enjoy doing with their children. If you enjoy it too, it can be a great way to help language acquisition. Songs capture babies’ attention, which facilitates the detection of sounds, rhythms, melodies and even frequent words in the language. From an acoustic point of view, singing songs (with their exaggerated intonation, repetition and regular pauses) can provide another route into language.
Speaking two languages at home is not considered a problem at all, quite the contrary. Speaking to your baby in your native language can help you to interact naturally and spontaneously, which is fundamental for communicative development. It’s worth knowing that more than half the world’s population is raised learning two languages or more, and children pick up more than one language quite readily. In addition, several studies show that children exposed to two languages do not have delays in the onset of babbling or the production of first words. So, being bilingual from birth is not a problem for children.
It is quite common for children to be exposed to three or more languages from birth. For exmaple, imagine a family in which the father and mother come from different countries (and have different native languages) and they met in yet a third country whose language they speak together as a lingua franca. In these cases the baby will be exposed to three languages from birth: the mother’s native language, the father’s native language and the lanuage of the community around them. This won’t do the child any harm, but keep in mind that each language will develop at a different pace depending on how much they hear it and how many different speakers of each language they meet.
It is common for children exposed to more than two languages to begin talking in the language most spoken at home and in their immediate environment. Less frequently used languages tend to be picked up later, when the child feels confident with their other languages.
It is very likely that the child will understand all languages spoken at home very early, but will need more time to start producing them than children who are learning a single language. In addition, they might mix words from their different languages and getting a grip on this will take time to master.
Learning to talk happens in interaction with other people. If you only exposed a child to TV, they wouldn’t learn very much. However, assuming they are learning through interaction as well, watching TV in a foreign language may have benefits. For example, hearing a foreign language, even on TV, can help sound perception and pattern recognition, and these can be helpful building blocks when learning to use the language.
At the same time, it is worth bearing in mind that several studies suggest that continued exposure to television below the age of three is associated with poorer cognitive and language development. Bodies like the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) recommend that parents avoid regular television exposure for children under two years.
Many families have to decide whether to take their child to day care or whether to have someone in the family stay at home and take care of them. Both can be good options. From the point of view of language development, the main thing is to ensure that the child is somewhere where they can interact with others in a rich commuicaitve environment.
Quality of day care can make a big difference. It is worth bearing in mind how many children each adult needs to look after, what activities they do, and how they support children’s communication. The debate, then, is not whether the child should be at home or at daycare, but what the conditions will be like for the child in each environment.
No, you don’t need to worry. There is a large range in when children start to produce their first words. Some children begin early, around 12 months, others much later, at around 14, 16 or even 18 months. These first words are often called “proto-words “, where children use the same sound to describe an object or event and, although the sound might not be quite right, it somewhat resembles the word used by adults. For example, when if a child always says “dut” to mean “duck”, then “dut” can be considered a first word.
Parents often worry if their child takes a while to say their first words. However, what is more important at this early stage is to check whether they understand what is being said, that is, whether they are beginning to build up a receptive vocabulary. You can use this website to help you observe your child’s development but, if you are ever worried, it is best to see a medical professional for individual advice.