by Rachelle Lipschultz
Watching a child learn language is perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of parenting and family life. In just a short span of time, we see kids go from babbling babies to children with large vocabularies who love to tell jokes and make up new ones. In this issue of the ezine, we’ll focus on what to expect at different stages of development, as well as practical advice for stimulating your child’s language development.
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Why is it so important to understand children’s language development? First, this knowledge will give you a better sense of what to expect at different ages. Second, you’ll be alert to warning signs of any problems in either producing or understanding language. And third, you’ll be in a better position to help foster your children’s development. Having a larger vocabulary and being able to put language to use effectively are skills that will last a lifetime and serve your child well in all sorts of situations—academically, socially, and (eventually) professionally. Typical language development
When we think of “language development,” we usually think of the first few years of life, when children progress from crying to babbling to full-fledged sentences. But of course, language development continues long after that, as children become able to use language in new and different ways. Below is a quick overview of what to expect at different ages; the resources at the end of this article will provide you with much greater detail.
- Newborns may not talk yet, but they can still communicate. Through crying (and its variations, such as the “pain cry” vs. the “fussy cry,”) they make their needs and wants known.
- Infants coo and babble. Their sounds do not yet have meaning, but they begin to take on the sounds of language, so that babbling might have the inflection of, say, a question followed by an answer. They also respond to the sound of their own names—as with children of all ages, they can understand a lot more than they can produce.
- By 12-18 months, children typically develop a small but growing vocabulary. The words are typically nouns (“mama,” “dada,” “bottle”). They also start communicating via gestures such as pointing.
- By about 2 years, children are using “telegraphic speech.” They combine words into 2- or 3-word sentences, mainly nouns and verbs. Thus, a child might proclaim, “Milk allgone!” or demand “Mommy ball!”
- During the preschool years, vocabulary increases dramatically. Children learn new words all the time, often via a process called “fast mapping”—they intuit a word’s meaning after hearing it used only once or twice. Children are also learning that words can have more than one meaning. This becomes a central theme in their humor at this age (“What time was it when the elephant sat on the fence? Time to get a new fence!”).
- As children get older, their language skills become increasingly more sophisticated. They are better able to understand nuances in language, such as how subtleties in emphasis can change the meaning of a sentence. (As an example, consider the differences between “I didn’t say you stole the money” and “I didn’t say you stole the money.” Same words, but very different meanings!) Their grammar becomes more complex, and they become able to express their thoughts more and more clearly. Slang becomes more important, for a variety of reasons: Sometimes, it may serve as a code so that children can talk about taboo subjects without parents knowing what they mean. But more often than not, it’s simply a badge of identity, a way for children and teens to mark themselves as part of a group and to distinguish them from adults. There’s nothing inherently wrong with slang, but you should make sure to familiarize yourself with it so that you know what your kids are talking about.
Tips for promoting language development
- Vary your vocabulary. Once your child knows the word “big,” for example, you can start using words like “large,” “gigantic,” and “huge.” Children will often pick up the meaning from context, but if they don’t, you can always explain yourself quite easily.
- Encourage your children to read as much as they possibly can. The content doesn’t need to be educational per se; what matters is that they become increasingly fluent at the reading process. So whether they prefer comic books, the sports page, or Harry Potter, the fact that they are reading is the important part.
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