Thursday, May 5, 2011

All Kinds of Talk: Using Your Language to Change Your Child's

It seems almost too simple to be true: To help your child learn to talk, you'll need to your child. And yet as simple of a concept as it is, it's also a very powerful one. So powerful, in fact, that it appears to have long-lasting effects on your child and his development.

One oft-cited research study, for example, found that the amount of "family talk" that surrounded a child was strongly related to that child's vocabulary and their IQ at age three...and, importantly, still at age nine (Risley and Hart, 2006). This remained true even after variables such as socio-economic status were accounted for.  What's more, the type of language families used with their child was also important. Families in the study seemed to use two types of language; the "business" talk of telling children what needed to get done (do this, come here, put that down) and the more positive, engaging, conversational talk of describing the world to their children.  It was the families who used conversational talk with their children who talked more to their children....and the children in these families who had bigger vocabularies and higher IQ scores.

When I am working as a pediatric-speech language pathologist, then, I almost always start by teaching families how to talk to their kids.  One of the first things I share with parents is how to use four specific types of "conversational" talking with their children: parallel talk, description, self-talk, and expansion.
  • Parallel talk occurs when a parent talks about what the child is doing (Eating soup. You're eating soup!)
  • Description occurs when a parent describes an object to which the child is attending (Hot soup!)
  • Self-Talk occurs when a parent describes what the parent is doing as she does it. (Soup. Mama's eating soup. Eat Soup), and
  • Expansion occurs when a parent takes what the child says and expands it by one or two words. (Child: Soup. Mom: Yummy soup!). 
Simple? Yes.  But research has shown that a child's language can change for the better just by changing the language input they get from their parents. When parents are taught to use focused, simple language to describe what their child is doing and seeing, children make gains in their language skills (McLean and Cripe, 2000).  This isn't to say parents should talk in short sentences all the time, of course. Children need to hear their parents talking in longer, conversational sentences as well.  It's the balance between the short, focused language and the longer conversational sentences that seems to be the most effective.

And, as it turns out, some parents may do this intuitively.  In 2005, Deb Roy, a cognitive scientist and director of MIT Media Lab’s Cognitive Machines Group, set his home up with cameras and microphones to record everything his son and his son's caregivers said during the first two years of his son's life.  Although he expected to find that the caregivers' language got steadily more complex as his son aged, he actually found something very different.  When the caregivers talked to the baby, they didn't necessarily use simple language and short sentences-- at least not at first. But then--just as a new word was about to emerge in the toddler's language--something changed.   The caregiver's language became more and more simple....until the word emerged in the child's language, and then the caregivers slowly made their language more complex again.  This pattern repeated itself across words and caregivers, even though the caregivers didn't even know they were doing it. If this research stands up to time, it may show that parents who are really in tune with their babies and toddlers do a kind of dance with their child, where the child's language influences the parents' as much as the parents' language influence the child's.

It's important to note that many children will also need additional strategies woven into their days as well: many parents talk a blue streak at their children only to find their children don't talk back.  This is by no means the fault of the parents-- some children just need more help then others getting started talking. This blog touches on many of the other strategies we use to help children learn to talk, and a good early intervention professional will help parents sort through these strategies and figure out how and when to apply them. The first step along the way, though, is almost always to teach parents to use those four types of conversation speech consistently and carefully and lovingly around their child.

All of this to get at one small, yet somehow very big, idea:  Talk to your baby, your toddler, your child. Talk about the things he sees, and the things he does, and the things that make him laugh.  And as you do, know that you are giving him one of the most powerful gifts of all: the gift of language.

Looking for more ideas?...

 McLean, L. and Cripe, J. (2000). The Effectiveness of Early Intervention for Children With Communication Disorders. In Guralnick, M. The Effectiveness of Early Intervention.  pp 349-428.

Risley, T. R & Hart, B. (2006). Promoting early language development. In N. F. Watt, C. Ayoub, R. H. Bradley, J. E. Puma & W. A. LeBoeuf (Eds.), The crisis in youth mental health: Critical issues and effective programs, Volume 4, Early intervention programs and policies (pp. 83-88). Westport, CT: Praeger.

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