Watching Babies Think: How “Buh,” “Duh,” and “Ahh” Become Words in Less than Two Years
I was reading the opening to a chapter in an excellent book on brain development, (“What’s Going On In There?”) by neurobiologist, Lise Eliot. She recalls how much relief she felt when her baby boy uttered his first word before his first birthday. I thought to myself, “that’s a pretty high bar” for the rest of us. Most babies begin using spoken language around 18 months of age.
As Dr. Eliot continues, it is clear that she is not really bragging, but making a point that might be overlooked by those baby milestone charts. These early months, when baby cannot say a thing are a very important time for us to get to work with our own words for baby. From the moment of their first coo and babble, to the moment they start calling you Mama or Dada, babies are practicing “language usage” in their heads!
If you pay attention, you will actually see that baby is listening and reacting to the tone and volume of your voice. Your baby can distinguish between a upbeat tone (“it’s time to go outside”) versus a distressed tone (“Once again I cannot find my keys”). But there’s even more to it than that. The work babies are engaged in is pretty hefty. Look at the following points.
- We are born to talk, and from the first babble to the first word, our babies are pruning away the many sounds they are capable of making. They silently learn to keep only the sounds that they will need to produce the language spoken at home. This has huge implications for learning more than one language and explains why it is hard to learn a new language as one age.
- Language is social. It strengthens emotional ties and expresses your culture. It is no accident that the best teachers of language are the people in baby’s life. Mom, Dad, siblings, grandparents—these voices are the teacher’s baby responds to best and wants to please the most.
- Among the most important things you can do, as a parent is talk conversationally to your baby, right from the start. Let your little one hear your words—to repeat a name, point out body parts, count fingers and toes. Around 8 or 9 months, with no spoken language, many babies can touch their eyes, ears, mouth, and show their teeth on command. They KNOW more than they can say.
- Talking nonsense to babies does NOT help their language development. Talking in a loving fun voice while using real words is the most effective way to pass language skills on to a child. No more “wa-wa ba-ba-mookie?” for “want some milk?”
Among the many conference talks I’ve listened to on language development, there is one by Patricia Kuhl, Ph.D. on how a baby’s brain works and responds to our use of language. It visually communicates “what’s going on in there?” so we all can see why it is so important that we think about and act on developing baby’s language long before baby ever says a word.