Watching Babies Think: Babies Know More Than We Think and More Than They Can Speak
Anyone who has seen the 2004 comedy, Meet the Fockers, starring Robert DeNiro and Ben Stiller will remember the singular obsession of DeNiro’s character. As Jack Byrnes, an uptight former CIA agent and grandfather to Little Jack, he is hell-bent on using “the latest” child development principles to advance his grandson’s development. So when it comes to vocabulary building he takes sign language to a new level using a “drill and more drill” learning approach only to be foiled by his prospective son-in-law’s utterance of a profanity that is readily imitated by Little Jack!
When child development experts recommend talking to your baby, Jack Byrne’s approach is not what the scientific community had in mind. We can all just chill and do a great job of parenting and language development with less obsession. Here are a few ideas:
1. Put yourself in Baby’s position. Even without language our babies show us that they want to know who we are. They want to know what is in their world, not ours. Let’s just stay in that space for a bit and enjoy seeing our baby respond to our words and tone of voice. Many of our magical moments are when Baby lights up or reaches out in recognition when you say a particular word that matches a favorite movement, object or person: Up? Blankie? Milk? Bath? Water? Teddie? Phone?? (I’ve never met a baby that didn’t find telephones fascinating). All these words can be understood before your infant ever actually speaks because they are about Baby’s world and Baby’s needs.
2. Recognize the power of a receptive vocabulary. We have scientific evidence that babies are hard-wired to talk and learn just about any language. Even before they speak an actual word, they understand words based on listening to how the word is used. We know this based on parent reports in studies that use the Macarthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventory (CDI). These words are babies’ receptive vocabulary. By 8 months, your child’s receptive vocabulary may seem very small (about 7 words). But by one year it will increase 7-fold and by 16 months will come to over 175 words (see a list of commonly understood CDI words here). Babies at 16 months can even follow simple spoken directions and still not readily speak words in conversation. At this point understanding is more important than talking in sentences.
3. Consider yourself an example for language usage, not a teacher of words. Your child needs opportunities to hear language from you and needs you to use words that relate to what you are doing with Baby at the time. Remember understanding—Baby’s receptive vocabulary—is the key to using a word in speech. Practice saying a word over and over when you would use that word naturally. Like Jack Byrnes in Meet the Fockers, we can get overwrought with language development. There is really so much evidence that early language development, from birth to age 3, sets the stage for reading proficiency at the age of 8 you might feel justified in being irrational.
Jack Byrne had me laughing guiltily since I was a mom who took notes on 3×5 cards to track my kids’ vocabulary. And compared to some of my friends I was easy going. But in the end, your children must receive the message you are sending to perform at a high level in the future. Turn your baby on to words because you love talking to your little one. They’ll readily reciprocate when their store of words are ready to be shared.