There are so many things to keep in mind when you are a caregiver teaching infants. Language learning is just one of them, but it is a very important piece of the infant developmental puzzle. Parents and caregivers rarely sit down and teach to infants in a way that one may teach a kindergartner to tie his shoe. Instead, babies learn their native language through listening, modeling and discovery of sounds and tones. When planning an environment for the youngest students, it is important to consider these concepts and incorporate language immersion activities into everyday experiences.
The Progression of Language
From birth, infants are able to communicate with their caregivers. Any vocalizations made by an infant in the first year are considered prelinguistic, because they contain no actual words. Prelinguistic behaviors include crying, cooing, babbling and making varied intonations. When infants are born, they communicate by crying. Within the first few months of life, parents and caregivers are able to distinguish between a "hungry" cry and a "fussy" cry. A caregiver's response to these cries will determine how often a baby uses them to communicate with that caregiver. An infant's first type of non-crying vocalization attempts are often referred to as "cooing." Coos are mostly made up of a string of softly vocalized vowel sounds. When infants coo and a caregiver responds positively, the baby is more apt to continue the noise. This cooing is the first step to introducing conversational patterns to infants. When an infant coos, the caregiver should listen to the baby's noises without interrupting. When the baby stops cooing but is still looking towards the caregiver, it is important for the caregiver to answer. For example, say in a very soft voice "I hear you talking to me! Are you telling me a secret?" and wait for the baby to respond in coos. Continue this conversation pattern until the baby becomes fussy or loses interest. This is an important first lesson in the give and take of conversation.
By eight months, babies often combine vowel and consonant sounds in their cooing, able to make "mamamama" or "dadadada" sounds. This is also the time when babies begin to experiment with tone and pitch. They are able to play with their voices, making them louder with a raised or lowered pitch. These intonations can mimic the speech patterns of the infant's caregivers. By ten to twelve months, infants will often utter their first word. Most first words are shortened babbles, or two repetitions of a syllable such as "ba-ba" or "da-da."
While making vocalizations and using their voices to communicate are elements of productive speech, caregivers should also consider receptive language learning. Receptive language is the speech that children understand. This type of understanding is more difficult to measure, yet just as important as productive speech. Even at birth, an infant is able to differentiate speech from the other noises he is exposed to such as a fan in the room, a creaky floor or crib or a dog barking. “Motherese” is a speech pattern dubbed by child development experts
When infants are listening, they will often gaze into the eyes of the caregiver, smile, babble or coo. It is at this time when babies are most receptive to language from caregivers. Sit with the infant in your lap so that you are both comfortable. Engage the infant in a conversation by practicing the give and take method of sharing conversation. Through these interactions, infants will learn important pre-language concepts.
Conversation style, speech patterns and tone are all important things to keep in mind when teaching language. It involves simply engaging the infant in conversation, listening to his coos and babbling and responding quickly to his cries and fussiness. Knowing the basic development pattern of a baby's language skills will help you create an excellent environment for learning and repetition is the key.
Schickedanz, Judith, Understanding Children. Mayfield Publishing (1993).
Gonzalez-Mena, Janet, Infants, Toddlers and Caregivers. Mayfield Publishing (1993).
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