Baby Talk: Parents Do Make A Difference, By Promoting Childhood Chatter, From Birth To Age 3

April 19, 1999

Contrary to recent reports, parents "powerfully influence" their children's lives--at least from birth to age 3--by encouraging childhood chatter, researchers with the University of Delaware and Temple University contend.

"Parents do make a difference," says Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, UD's H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Education. "The stimulation parents and other caregivers provide in the first three years sets the stage for effective, productive communication skills that will last a lifetime."

To make their mark, says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University, "parents must remember that silence is not golden!" Babies are pre-programmed to acquire language, but "baby talk"--the strange, sing-song lingo adults murmur around infants--seems to help foster language learning, says Hirsh-Pasek, a member of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care.

From babbling to bartering, a new book, How Babies Talk: The Magic and Mystery of Language in the First Three Years of Life, guides parents through each stage of language development, "turning parents into explorers, by giving them a sense of wonder about this amazing process," Golinkoff says.

The book so clearly describes children's progress, in fact, that "parents may find themselves saying, `Ah ha! So, that's what my child is doing!'" Hirsh-Pasek says. "In this way, we hope the book will turn mundane, everyday events into magical moments" between caregivers and children.

"We want our readers to benefit from what we've learned about language acquisition because that makes parenting more fun," Golinkoff adds. "Over the past three decades, we've learned so much about how babies talk that a completely different picture of them has emerged. Today's infants don't even seem to resemble the babies Dr. Spock described in the 1950s."

Scheduled to reach bookstores nationwide by May 24, the 272-page book, published by Dutton, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc., "is an important addition to any parent's library," says T. Berry Brazelton, a professor of pediatrics at the Harvard Medical School and author of several books on infants, toddlers and parenting. "The evolution of infant speech is not only available to [parents] here, but now they can contribute to it, and know when to worry and when not to worry."

Silence is not golden--but forget the flashcards

How Babies Talk was written with all parents, educators and child-care professionals in mind, thanks to "the many children in laboratories worldwide, who show us how they transform bits of information into magical moments called language," Hirsh-Pasek says.

Tips for deaf parents and those with hearing-impaired children are included in the book, along with reassurances for anyone concerned about a late-blooming youngster. And, throughout the book, practical advice and a "try-this" feature prompts parents to enjoy their children's development, while watching for problems such as ear infections.

Soothing parents' fears wasn't hard, Golinkoff says, because "children acquire language at their own pace, and tremendous individual variability is quite normal." In UD's Infant Language Laboratory, "Some children speak in full sentences at 16 months, while others might not say a word until they're 28 months," she reports. "Usually, this is no cause for concern."

Infants enter the world "hard-wired" for language, Hirsh-Pasek says. "Babies are not simply passive, receptive beings who sit there being cute," she explains. "Sure, they're adorable, but they also have very active minds, and they take in everything we give them." In fact, researchers know that a 7-month-old fetus can hear its parents because, like a newborn, its heart rate declines and then returns to normal in response to interesting sounds.

But, forget piping Mozart to your unborn fetus or flashing foreign words at your newborn: "All you need to do," Hirsh-Pasek says, "is to talk and listen. Your baby wants to communicate with you. And, when toddlers are immersed in language, they use their language earlier and more efficiently."

Over the years, some experts have argued whether "nature"--the baby's innate capacity to learn-is more important than "nurture"--the home environment. The authors of How Babies Talk steer clear of this debate, since they say both factors are crucial. "We believe the child arrives ready to make sense of many different kinds of stimulation," Golinkoff explains. "But, we also realize that parents' participation is vitally important, too."

From gurgling to gregarious

Babies can't feed or clean themselves, and they can't walk or talk at birth, Hirsh-Pasek points out. Yet, they're so primed to language, children in many regions pick up two or three different languages with no difficulty.

"That's the irony," Golinkoff says. "We don't trust them alone. They can't cross the street. We don't let them have sharp objects. Little ones are helpless in so many ways. It's a miracle that the thing they're best at--better than grownups!--is learning languages."

Indeed, between birth and 3 years of age, youngsters go from simply smiling in response to a parent's voice, to becoming "language generalists" and finally, "language specialists," Golinkoff notes.

Between 4 and 8 months of age, Hirsh-Pasek explains, coos and gurgles turn into the sing-song noises commonly called babbling. A 6-month-old might "sing" herself to sleep by saying, "nuhnuhnuhnuh," for example. Parents also may be thrilled to hear babies begin saying "dada" and "mama," Golinkoff says. But, is the baby really talking about mom and dad? She suggests charting the timing of these words to learn whether Junior is naming his parents, or simply experimenting with arbitrary sounds.

From 9 to 12 months, the authors report, babies begin pointing and grunting--as in "eheheheheh!"--which can prove frustrating for parents, who must guess what the child wants. Soon enough, though, babies between 12 and 18 months begin using their first words, from "hi" to "bot-bot," as they realize that words symbolize specific concepts and objects.

"What's that? ... Why?"

Sammy Minker, seated with his father, Rich, views videos in the University of Delaware's Infant Language Laboratory, with researchers Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta M. Golinkoff.

Online video available through contact

A dramatic "vocabulary spurt" may take parents by surprise when toddlers reach 18 to 24 months and begin learning up to 9 new words each week, Golinkoff says. Research suggests that this spurt occurs after children have accumulated anywhere from 30 to 100 words. At that point, they form simple sentences such as, "More juice," and they may ask repeatedly, "Watssat?" or "Whatdat?" meaning, "What's that?"

Now more than ever, Hirsh-Pasek emphasizes: "Your child is ripe for language learning, soaking up any words you present."

And, when a child enters the 24-to-36-month stage, Golinkoff says, "Look out." As toddlers begin manipulating grammatical rules, they initiate conversations on the telephone, in the kitchen, with parents, or with anyone else who will listen. At this stage, children urgently need to know, "Why?"

Don't worry, Golinkoff says, the child only wants to converse, "So, don't launch into a lecture on macroeconomics. The simplest answer will do." Since children this age also must learn to use language politely, she adds, "Watch your language. They pick up any words quickly, so make sure the words they hear are the ones you want them to learn!"

By age 3, children are language specialists, ready to tackle virtually any social situation. By understanding their journey to language competence, Hirsh-Pasek says, parents and caregivers can "fully appreciate the amazing capabilities that are present in every child." In this way, she adds, "They can better recognize when something goes awry," while also creating "a stimulating and enriching environment in which language can flourish."
NOTE TO REPORTERS: Working journalists reporting on How Babies Talk: The Magic and Mystery of Language in the First Three Years of Life may request a review copy. A limited number of media copies will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. The book will be sold in bookstores for a suggested retail price of $ 29.95, beginning May 24.

Additional Contacts:

Temple--Harriet Goodheart, 215-204-7476,
Penguin--Sara Golier, 212-366-2223,

University of Delaware

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