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Friday, December 17, 2010

Talking to babies and young children: why I don't use baby talk

There are two ends of communication with very young children. There's what you say to them, and what they try to say to you. How you deal with both these faces of communication may determine your child's ability to understand and make themselves understood at an age-appropriate level later on.


Let's start with what you say to them- and by 'say', I mean through all your communication media, not just words. A new-born baby thrives on tone of voice and body language; sure, they almost certainly don't understand the actual words you say at all, but they pick up on whether it's friendly or not. I have a rule of thumb when talking to babies, which is based on my realisation that they understand much more than they can express- I give them the benefit of the doubt and use proper words, proper sentences and lots of eye contact. I talk with meaning, even at that very early age. 

When I was doing my baby care course and was being inspected, my supervisor queried the relevance of explaining to a 6-month-old baby girl that mummy would be back soon, mummy loved her, it was okay to be sad but I would look after her and give her cuddles till mummy came back. The supervisor told me the baby wouldn't understand, and rattled on about levels of receptive language; I think she rather missed the point. Saying meaningful words helped me to use the right comforting vocal tone and the right body language, which meant that my communication had maximum effectiveness. And anyway, who knows how many of those words the baby understood? She certainly settled down and attached to me very quickly. 

There is no way of knowing exactly what a non-verbal baby understands. But if you're being authentic, even a baby will recognise the truth in your voice and actions. Watch that little face as you speak; if a baby makes sudden eye contact or stops crying, you're in business.

Looking after tiny babies is a bit like being a vet- your little charges can't tell you what's wrong or what they want, so you have to deduce it from their symptoms. But unlike animals, slightly older babies can often nod or even say 'yes' if you ask them the right questions, or even just stop crying when you hit the nail on the head. The hardest part is choosing very, very simple words and then gradually increasing the complexity of your vocabulary at an appropriate rate as baby grows up. Watch those eyes. They tell you so much.

When I say simple words, I don't mean baby talk. This isn't snobbery, I promise you- it's about helping your child to cope in the outside world. I'm not a complete baby talk Nazi; there's no harm in granny asking your child if he wants a bikkie if you always say 'biscuit' yourself- the biggest danger is that your child will embarrass you by correcting granny! The problem comes if you've always said bikkie, and someone else asks if he wants a biscuit when you're not there. Someone laughs at him because he doesn't understand, and some mean kid calls him a baby, and next thing you've got a crisis of confidence. Many parents think it's cute to hear children talking in their baby-grammar way, and express that by copying the way they talk back to them; maybe in their hearts they're sad to see their little one growing up. LET GO. 

It's far less cute when the child with no grasp of proper English whatsoever is about to start school, and her preschool teacher tells you that she needs therapy. Better to start modelling good English right from the start. I taught one 4½-year-old who always referred to himself by name, eg 'Douggie got a toy' as he showed me his new acquisition; the lack of any grasp of pronouns was thought cute by his family, and they spoke directly to him that way too- 'what does Douggie want?' That sort of 'difference' in verbal expression sets a child up for bullying when they go to school.

So how do we get a child to use proper words instead of baby talk?

The secret is not to correct them. That sounds weird, but it's true. Instead, you model the correct word or phrase. If your baby says 'Mimi want bikkie,' you respond 'oh, so you want a biscuit, Miriam- I want a biscuit too!' You copy what they said, rephrasing it so it's correct, in a happy, conversational way. Children suck up modelling like you wouldn't believe and they looooove having your undivided attention, even for a moment- take the time to address a full sentence to them as you open the biscuit tin. They want to be like you, and they're watching you and listening to every word you say. 

How many of us have a story like this one? There I am pushing the stroller down the street with my 5-month-old, and a little dog comes running at us barking. Thoughtlessly I say 'Piss off!' to it, in my very expressive 'irritated' voice. And for the rest of our walk around the block, a little voice from the stroller repeats ad nauseam, 'Piss off! Piss off! Piss off!', giggling. THEY ARE LISTENING.

If an older child or a stupid adult makes fun of how your child speaks while they're still in transition from baby talk, quietly defend them; they're still learning, and they need your loving support. Just keep on modelling the right thing.

What about the way babies try to communicate with you?

My son (the very same one who managed 'piss off' at 5 months) said his first word at 7 weeks of age. I'm not suggesting that every child will do that if you use my method- my son happens to be extremely bright, manifesting largely in communication skills- but I'm sure it had a lot to do with my use of early childhood music education strategies from the moment he was born. When you teach music to 3-year-olds, you use a LOT of echoing, where the teacher claps or plays a pattern and the children repeat it; then the teacher might extend the pattern, or the children might be asked to extend it by improvising (making something up on the spot). 

I decided to try turning that around. Every time my baby son made a sound, I echoed what he said, and often added to it by using a conversational rise and fall in my voice. Boy, did that get a good reception! -especially when I changed the inflection of what he'd 'stated' and made a funny face with it. So if he said 'Ba-ba-ga!' I might say 'Ba-ba-GA?? Really? Tell me more!', raising my eyebrows to the ceiling and smiling. He'd smile back and make another sound, and I'd repeat the process. He was extremely engaged by this, even as a newborn, and became very vocal very quickly indeed.

Before these babble-fests, in fact every time I went near him and every time he woke up, I said hello to him and smiled. At 7 weeks, when I smiled at him as he woke up in my arms and said 'Hello', he echoed back 'hello' completely clearly. I nearly dropped him in surprise, and the girlfriend who was with me suffered from a severe case of exploding eyeballs too. It was a short step from here to connecting a word with an object, like 'book' or 'teddy', and his babbles increasingly related to actual words.

So copying my baby's own 'baby talk' was only used as a means of opening a channel of verbal communication. I was showing my baby that I was listening to him and responding to what he said. It was a sort of game we played. Once he had some stable words I could recognise, I always used the proper word instead of copying the baby version. Very soon he had an exploding vocabulary of other increasingly complex words (by the age of 4 we were up to 'the wheel configuration of a locomotive').

It's so important that you look at your child's eyes when you talk to them or they talk to you. I have seen childcare workers yell instructions across the room to a child in a room full of playing children and wonder why they didn't immediately jump to attention. Get down on their level, smile and get that eye contact- and then you have a hope of having effective verbal communication, no matter what age your young child is. Be authentic, so that your body language and tone match your words, and their chances of understanding you increase dramatically. Model correct speech without negativity and over-correction, and your child has a much better chance of expressing their thoughts, ideas and feelings effectively as they grow up.

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