Look Who’s Talking
“Parentese,” eye contact and playful interaction help children become successful communicators.
Barbara Thomas was enjoying her Friday morning away from the office where she works. She was catching up with a friend who had just returned from a trip to witness the birth of her second grandchild. The two women were enjoying coffee and conversation. Meanwhile the friend’s 21-month-old grandchild played beside them, babbling to herself. A pause in their conversation let them overhear the child’s ‘dialogue’ a little better. She was mimicking the conversation they had just been having, using the same inflection patterns even laughing at the right times. Later when the group continued their conversation outdoors in the garden, the little girl continued to imitate her grandmother’s words, sentences and even copied her watering the plants.
“It reminded us both that even before children are verbally understood, they are already picking up on our conversational manners and styles,” said Thomas who addresses situations like this regularly as a speech therapist with Associated Speech Language Services. “They’re soaking it up all the time whether we’re actively teaching it or not.”
For children, mimicking adults is an important part of the long road to becoming successful communicators. Thomas says much of our communication includes non-verbal skills such as eye contact, body language, active listening and tone of voice. Children will often pick up these habits by watching and mimicking what their loved ones do.
The journey toward mastering communication begins right out of the womb.
“They’re little observers, and they take things that maybe we’re not actually teaching on purpose. One of those lessons is eye contact, which starts at infancy when parents gaze at their child,” Thomas said.
Parents will often accompany gazing with something referred to as “motherese” or “parentese,” which includes cooing and babbling back and forth with their child. Parents will also speak to their children in a rhythmic singsong, which often includes high-pitched tones and repeating vowel patterns. Studies performed by Stanford University in the mid-1980s showed that this practice is instinctive. The study also found that infants preferred listening to “parentese” over normal adult conversation. This form of baby talk can help attract an infant’s attention and encourages the child to mimic certain language patterns.
Another building block that is established early on is turn taking. Nicole Streich, director of Speech and Language Services at Tulsa’s Scholl Center, said turn taking is another one of those unconsciously taught lessons. Streich gives the example of a parent saying “bottle” and the child repeating “ba” or “baba.” Those attempts are usually met with excitement and commendation.
“Acknowledging those attempts and expanding on them shows children how this dance [of communication] goes,” Streich explained.
Playing with your children, especially as they get older, is another way to teach them communication skills.
“A child may not know what to do with a toy and hand it to their parent. Then the parent takes the toy, like a car, and they’ll make the car go up and then down. When they pass it back, the child imitates what they did,” Streich said. “We’re showing them how we play, how we interact with one another. When they take their turn, they’re showing us they are becoming a conversationalist, a communication partner.”
Streich says the earlier the better when it comes to helping your child establish those basic communication building blocks.
“I think it’s really important for parents to acknowledge that building effective communicators starts early… You’re setting the stage for how they’ll communicate throughout their life,” she said.
Preparing Your Child for School
If there were one thing Kristin Henness would stress to parents of children nearing school age, it would be to give their children as many opportunities as possible to be around their peers. Henness, a mother and second grade teacher, says this allows them to play and learn how to communicate with their peers before arriving in a classroom.
“It’s very evident when you see kids who have only been around siblings. They’ll come in using baby voices and are only able to speak in two or three word sentences,” Henness said.
For many children, school is the first time they will put their basic communication skills to test.
“[School] is where they learn to navigate and participate in groups,” Thomas said. “At school, children are forced to learn how to jump into a conversation with other students who they may be assigned to sit with at lunch or the playgroup they’re assigned to in PE.”
An article in the April/June 2007 issue of the journal Topics in Language Disorder noted that children exposed to more positive peer interactions can lead to well-developed social abilities such as compromising, negotiating and showing affection as early as 3-years old. Children who have never been exposed to peer interactions will not readily join in the group play and this could effect the development of those social abilities previously mentioned.
“As students get more experienced in communicating with their peers and other adults, you’ll see they will start to use longer sentences naturally,” Henness said. “You’ll also notice they begin to ask deep questions and begin to develop their own opinions.”
The questions can sometimes be silly, addressing something they saw on television or possibly questioning daily routines. Henness says these queries help children understand the world around them. Though the questions can be numerous, acknowledging and encouraging them could benefit the child in the classroom and beyond.
“It’s very important to communicate at school and at home that it’s okay to ask questions, and it’s okay to have a wrong idea or answer. Children whose questions aren’t received well or go unanswered shy away from asking them in the classroom,” Henness said. Fear of asking questions could mean not fully understanding a lesson and doing poorly on homework.
Another way to prepare a child for a school environment requires parents to have the same expectations at home that a teacher might have in a classroom such as guiding children to develop their attention span.
“Parents lay that primary goal as their first teacher. We want to establish good auditory attention so when they go to school, they listen to their teachers as long as they need to get the information required to complete a task,” Streich said. Helping them develop their attention span means being a good model. “Expecting that our children will give us their undivided attention to receive direction requires us to give them undivided attention as well.”
Henness also stresses the importance of modeling good classroom behavior. Henness models possible situations for her second graders such as asking to go to the restroom. She presents the situation like a script using terms such as “you say…” “then I’ll say…” This gives children a clear format for how questions should be presented.
As a parent and a teacher, Henness says she understands how difficult being a good model for your child at all times can be.
“We live in a hurried society and it does take stopping and asking them to repeat their question. I think it’s okay to revisit a conversation,” Henness said. She also insists on distraction-free dinners where the family can focus on conversation.
Technology and Communication Development
The hurried society we live in features many distractions, especially when it comes to technology. With these developments communication is changing.
“I think every generation has some concern about the effects of the latest and greatest technology,” Thomas said. “Just in our private practice, we notice kids showing up in the waiting room younger and younger with their own [devices] or using their parents’ to play games. So children are getting a lot more screen time earlier.”
Thomas, Henness and Streich all agreed that limiting the time children interact with electronic devices, also referred to as screen time, is important for fostering good communication skills. Life is full of incidental learning moments that can help children become better communicators, and children could miss out on those if they are focused on a screen.
“We encourage parents to limit distractions because communication is something that is learned and practiced. We learn to be good communicators by watching and interacting with other people,” Streich said. “The television, computers, tablets and cellphones aren’t bad things but during those times when a child is engaged with the device, they are missing the opportunity to develop good communication skills.”
Children in the United States watch an average of four hours of television per day according to a review published November 2011 in JAMA Pediatrics. The study noted that parents are encouraged by The American Academy of Pediatrics to avoid exposing children under 2-years of age to all types of television and computers as these practices may delay language development.
While everyday activities have been affected by the development of technology, Streich says it is more important to establish a strong foundation in basic language skills before focusing on the methods of delivery.
“We can’t ignore the fact that technology is here, readily accessible and that most of us depend on it. As adults we receive information in written form frequently, but often our written communication will mirror our verbal ability,” Streich said. “We don’t want to deprive our children from the opportunity of using [technology], but limiting it during those early developmental years will benefit them.”
The prime age for setting a good language foundation is from birth to 6-years of age. Henness says despite the critical developmental lessons being learned, it can be a fun time for both child and parent.
“It’s a good time as a parent to enjoy the little mishaps. They should be having those funny conversations,” said Henness, after recounting some of her children’s comical communication bloopers. “I always want to write them down so I can go back and share those stories with them later.”
Mistakes are bound to happen, but parents shouldn’t get discouraged.
“I always have to remind myself and other parents that this is not a one shot thing,” Thomas said. Teaching children communication skills is an ongoing process. “In our communities, social skills and styles are constantly changing over time, hopefully for the better. [Parents] and children don’t just get one chance to learn this.”
To Learn More
If you have questions about your child’s hearing or speech development, ask your healthcare provider.
For a language and hearing timeline for children ages birth to 5-years of age, go to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association’s site.
Barbara Thomas suggests using Pinterest for ideas on games to play with children to develop language skills.
The Mary K. Chapman Speech and Hearing Clinic at the University of Tulsa gives free speech-language and hearing screening tests for children. Phone: 918.631.2504.