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When their daughter, Makena, was born 12 years ago, first-time parents Karlee and Dave McCarroll did all the right things to encourage her language development.

"Reading to Makena, even as a baby, helped tremendously as far as teaching her new words," said Karlee McCarroll. "And I've always talked with her — from day one — as if she could understand everything I said."

Soon, the amount of talking that went on in the McCarroll house increased big-time with the arrival of twins Morgan and Kennedi. By age 20 months, the girls were "babbling all the time," said McCarroll.       

Now that the twins are in grade school, McCarroll can look back and say she enjoyed the great language explosion that took place toward the end of the second year. But she still wonders if she could have been doing more to help encourage her toddlers' language skills.

CONCERN IS NORMAL

McCarroll isn't alone in her parental hand-wringing, according to Lise Eliot, Ph.D., assistant professor of cell biology and anatomy at The Chicago Medical School and the author of What's Going On In There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life.          

"If parents spend the first year of their child's life worrying mostly about motor development, we devote the second to language," said Eliot, who has two young children. "And if a child's speech isn't all that forthcoming, we begin nervously reading up on language delays and disorders."          

"Fortunately, the vast majority of children learn language without a hitch," Eliot said. When you think of how difficult it is to master a new language yourself, she pointed out, the fact that children just three or four years old who can't even add or tie their shoes can understand and speak in full, complex sentences without any training can seem pretty amazing.          

"You become convinced, as most linguists now are, that human language is an instinct, a behavior as innate and inevitable as sleeping or eating," Eliot said, adding that some researchers have come to this conclusion after seeing how young children will even invent their own language — such as deaf children who begin signing spontaneously — if for some reason they are unable to pick up on the language around them.

HOW BABIES LEARN

"We've come a long way, just in the past few years, in our understanding of how babies learn language," said Peter Jusczyk, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Johns Hopkins University and author of The Discovery of Spoken Language.       

And we've gotten rid of some misconceptions.          

"I remember my mother telling me when my sister was born that babies really couldn't see things for the first 6 months," Jusczyk said. "It was also thought that babies didn't really understand language until they were able to produce it."         

"Back when our parents were reading baby books, popular learning theorist B.F. Skinner argued that a child learns language through behavioral feedback, a trial-and-error process of having the correct words rewarded (getting a bottle after saying "milk") and the incorrect words ignored (because "mug" will be misunderstood)," Eliot explained.          

But researchers now believe a baby's ability to learn language is much more than trial and error. It's hard-wired into the brain right from the start. "Just watch how young children constantly think up new words and phrases — which make sense in their own way — that can't possibly have been shaped by just mimicking Mom or Dad," said Eliot. For example, Eliot's daughter, Julia, once came up with "yesternight," which is clearly different in meaning from "yesterday."         

But just because language appears to be instinctive, it doesn't mean babies and toddlers don't benefit greatly from interaction with their parents and caregivers. In fact, a baby's day-to-day experience is so important to the process that "any baby, of any racial or cultural origin, can be adopted into another country or culture and end up sounding indistinguishable from native-born speakers," Eliot said.

BABY TALK: GOOD OR BAD?

So, it's up to parents to provide a language-rich environment for their children right from the start. But, should that include baby talk? "Yes!" said Roberta Golinkoff, Ph.D., director of the Infant Language Laboratory at the University of Delaware and co-author of How Babies Talk: The Magic and Mystery of Language in the First Three Years of Life.         

"Babies like baby talk," Golinkoff said, noting that even immediately after birth, babies respond more to infant-directed talk than they do to adult-directed talk. When speaking baby talk, "your facial expressions are exaggerated. Your eyes open wide. That's very appealing to a baby," said Golinkoff, adding that researchers repeatedly have found that baby talk helps infants differentiate between sounds.         

Other experts agree. "Young babies have a lot of information to process," said pediatrician and child-development expert T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., author of Touchpoints: Your Child's Emotional and Behavioral Development . "Motherese," Brazelton's term for this "I'm-talking-to-you" language, "breaks through and sorts things out for baby," he said.         

But won't baby talk lead to kids who talk like, well, babies?         

Not at all, according to Golinkoff. "It naturally stops as the child gets older and is able to better communicate with the parent," she explained. "You just naturally adjust. At age three, you're not doing it."         

While you're doing all that baby talk, be sure to say your child's name frequently. "We know that babies are picking up on the sound of their own name as early as four and a half months," said Jusczyk. And while they're still months away from saying those much-anticipated words, "babies know the meaning of 'Mommy' and 'Daddy' by about six months. That's a lot earlier than we supposed."

LANGUAGE PATTERNS

"By about nine months, babies begin understanding the frequency of patterns in language," Jusczyk said. A baby will listen longer to the sounds that occur frequently.         

During one experiment at Johns Hopkins University, researchers visited the homes of 16 nine-month-olds for 10 days out of a two-week period. During each visit, the researcher played an audio tape that included the same three stories. The stories included odd words such as 'python' and 'hornbill,' — words that wouldn't be encountered in the babies' everyday experience, Jusczyk said.

After a couple of weeks where nothing was done, the babies were brought to the research lab, where they listened to two recorded lists of words. The first list included words heard in the stories. The second included similar words, but not the exact words used in the stories.         

"The babies listened longer to the words that had appeared in the stories," said Jusczyk. "The research showed that the babies had extracted individual words from the story," he explained. When a control group of 16 nine-month-olds, who hadn't heard the stories, listened to the two groups of words, they showed no preference for either list.         

"This doesn't mean that at nine months of agethe babies knew the meaning of the words," Jusczyk pointed out. "But they do store away these sound patterns," he explained. "They're like little tags, waiting for meaning."

GIRL TALK

While knowing how language skills develop is helpful for parents, it's important not to get too hung up on milestones, because there's such a wide normal range of development, Jusczyk said. Also, each child is different. Even siblings of different sexes may learn language at different speeds. "One recent study found that as early as mid-gestation, female fetuses move their mouths significantly more than male fetuses as if already practicing for a lifetime of speech," said Eliot.          

And girl babies start talking a month or two earlier on average than boys, according to Eliot. "But boys usually catch up during the vocabulary spurt that occurs between 18 and 24 months, when toddlers can learn an amazing 10 to 20 words per day," said Jusczyk.         

"Even long before your child starts holding up her end of the conversation, the best thing you can do to help improve her language skills is to talk with her," Eliot said. "Babies and toddlers need to hear a lot of conversations," she explained. "But that doesn't mean you plug your baby in front of a T.V. or just let her listen while you talk on the phone." It's the interaction with you that will make all the difference.          

Repetition is important, but don't underestimate your child. "Babies get bored," Eliot said. "You need to keep changing things." So instead of saying "cup" over and over while pointing to a cup, try saying, "Would you like the blue cup or the purple cup?" or "Would you like water or juice in your cup?"          

"There is some controversy, in academic circles, over whether or not it's possible to speed up a baby's ability to learn language," said Jusczyk, adding that there's really no magic method for accelerating language learning beyond exposing babies to conversation and reading to them.

ENCOURAGING DEVELOPMENT

But, it is helpful to stay just slightly ahead of your baby's developmental stages, Eliot suggested. Most babies at three or four months will be making mostly vowel sounds for example. So this is a good time to start making repetitive consonant sounds, such as pointing to pictures and talking about "the cat, the cow, and the canary" in a children's book.         

"Through the first year, a baby concentrates primarily on individual words. But at 16 to 18 months, toddlers begin to appreciate differences in word order," said Eliot. For example, 16-to-18-month-olds were seated in front of a pair of television sets each showing Sesame Street puppets acting out one of the following two sentences: "Big Bird is tickling Cookie Monster" or "Cookie Monster is tickling Big Bird." The children looked more at the video that corresponded correctly to whichever sentence was playing on voice-over.         

This ability to appreciate the meaning of word order is quite helpful when toddlers begin speaking two-word phrases themselves at about 18 to 24 months. Just listen to a two-year-old: "I go." "See kitty." "More milk."          

Parents can help at this stage by not stressing out over grammatical mistakes. "There's a good reason why older twos, threes, and fours come up with constructions such as 'He gots a purple truck;' 'She beed happy' and 'Katie comed over,' Eliot explained.          

The child is learning the rules of grammar without ever having been formally taught. She is taking an irregular verb — one whose past tense is not simply formed by adding "ed" on the end — and treating it like a regular verb. "These errors are a normal part of learning language," Eliot said. And, they'll continue, despite parents' correction, until a child eventually memorizes the rules of grammar.          

The important thing is to encourage your toddler's efforts. If she says, "He gots a purple truck," just respond by repeating the sentence correctly: "Yes! Jimmy has a purple truck." Simply hearing the correct version is more helpful — and certainly more fun — than being told "No, that's not right."

BILINGUAL BABIES?

If learning one's native tongue is a big job, parents may be concerned that exposing a baby to two or more languages, either in a bilingual home or through time spent with a caretaker who speaks a different language, might be too much of a burden.         

It's not, said Brazelton. "I wish I had raised my children bilingually. If a child is lucky enough to hear two languages — or even three — he is set up to be bilingual."          

Hearing different languages can be confusing at first, Brazelton admitted, and there can be delays in learning English as the child sorts out more than one language. But in the end, the child comes out ahead, he emphasized.          

Golinkoff agrees. "We know from research that the critical period when a person is most receptive to learning multiple languages is before puberty," she said. "And to become the best native speaker, the best time to learn is age five and under. So what do we do in this country? We teach foreign languages after puberty."         

"Research shows that the brain seems to be sculpted by early language experiences," added Golinkoff. And if there is no exposure to other languages? "The native language takes over those areas of the brain," she said.

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