Best Questions from New Moms on Baby Language

I spoke to a group of new moms at Greenwich Hospital yesterday and wanted to share what was on their minds:

1.  Should I talk baby talk to my baby?

      I want to make a clear distinction between “baby talk” which is using babyish  words for things such as “ba ba” for bottle or “blankie” for blanket. No, you shouldn’t talk baby talk and use incorrect words for objects. Use the adult words,  “bottle” and “blanket” or else your child will learn to speak using the incorrect names. Baby talk does NOT refer to the wonderful little sounds that your baby is       making. Those “coo” and “goo” sounds are his attempt to communicate with you and you DO want to answer him. When he says, “la,” then you repeat “la.” Pause a second before repeating what he says. Research actually shows that by pausing, it helps your baby increase his attention span and take in new vocabulary.

2.  My three-month-old doesn’t seem interested in books. What should I do?

When I questioned this mom further she was concerned because her baby looked at mom’s face instead of the book. I say, “Wonderful!” He is getting all that great language along with watching your facial expressions and delight in reading a book. Often times when I read to a baby, they are in a baby seat, so they can look back and forth from me to the book. I also made the point that reading to your baby doesn’t always mean reading all the print from start to finish. If your baby is fascinated with a beautiful illustration of bright contrasting colors, stay on that page and talk about it.

3.  Will my baby benefit from listening to me read out loud the adult book that I am reading or does it have to be a children’s book?

Infants benefit from hearing the “rhythm” of our language when we speak or read to them. A newborn benefits from hearing conversation directed at her as well as  reading. You can read The New York Times or your favorite parenting book out loud and she will be building her language connections. As she approaches around 3 months of age, she will be more interested in hearing the rhythmic, rhyming dialogue in a board book along with watching the bright, contrasting illustrations.

4.  What should I do when my baby seems bored with her toys?                    

      You don’t need a large number of toys for your baby but make sure they have the characteristics of a good language toy (see my article on how to pick a good language toy). Babies are attracted to faces and talk more to faces so make sure you have plenty of critters with eyes to attract her and encourage verbalizing.

5.  My mother and I are speaking some Vietnamese to my son. Is that enough to help him become bilingual?

    I am often asked how much exposure a child needs to a foreign language to  become proficient in that          second language. A foreign language class once a week  is not enough to build the understanding and expression of a second language. In a recent article in the New York Times, February 2, 2008, language specialist  Roberta Golinkoff says, “being immersed in the language and living within it are  what lead to language learning, not 20 minutes of exposure to a limited set of  vocabulary and sentence structures or attendance at a weekly one-hour Spanish  class.” The best way for this mom to help her son be proficient in Vietnamese, is  to continue to have his grandmother speak only Vietnamese and have mom do the  same. I assume his dad will speaking English and he will be exposed to English     everywhere else he goes throughout his day.















Posted in Babies, Bilingual, Birth-3 year-olds, Books, Reading, Strategies to Encourange Language Development, Toys | Leave a comment

Toy Review: “Diggity Dog” by International Playthings, Inc.

31dabtfpk0l_aa160_.jpgKids three years and up want a little challenge in their games—not everything left to chance! Diggity Dog is their first pick for fun. Choose your puppy and press the doghouse to listen for the number of barks. Count them out as you land on a space, dig a hole and the little bone sticks to your dog’

s magnetic nose. See if the color on the underside of the bone matches your dog and collect all three before heading home to win. There’s just enough action to keep little hands busy and skill required to keep minds churning. Playing Diggity Dog involves auditory memory (remembering the number of barks), visual memory (remembering where your colored bones are), counting, and conversation negotiating turn-taking and discussing strategy. These are all skills that contribute to language development.


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Toy Review: “Folding Castle Playset” by Melissa and Doug

21hk0l8jqgl_aa160_.jpgGet past the guard, drop down the drawbridge and roll up the door of the Folding Castle Play Set and you are in for some fun. The king and queen preside over the castle while the knight can stand guard in the towers, slide open the gate to lock the enemy in jail, hide under the stairs, or chase along the top of the wall. The horse provides an escape or can stay in his stable. Kids love being in charge of the action, which stimulates story telling and builds the foundations for literacy and writing.

Always let your child be the director of the action, not you, the parent. Research shows that parent involvement in pretend play can raise the level of language, but be careful to be a willing participant and not lead the play—that’s your child’s job! Don’t rob her of the opportunity to investigate new ways to use the doors, hiding places and stairwells. This builds language skills as she generates her own stories. The castle is so flexible, that a new story can be told each day as your child invents characters and themes.

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Posted in 3-6 year-olds, 6-8 year-olds, Birth-3 year-olds, Strategies to Enhance Language, Toy Reviews, Video Review | 1 Comment

Toy Review: “Treehouse Playset” by Melissa and Doug

31ywxcgzq5l_aa160_.jpgLanguage enhancing toys have moving parts and opportunities to change the action and therefore the story. Kids can’t wait to enter the Tree House Play Set by Melissa and Doug, traveling up the staircase before someone on the third floor pulls up the drawbridge, relaxing on the swing, pulling a bucket up three levels, letting down the ladder to escape, resting on the hammock or tricking someone crossing the bridge’s trap door! The six moving parts, including pulley-operated systems provide for lots of imaginative play and adventure. With plenty of room to navigate, the tree house accommodates children or siblings of differentages, creating multi-layered stories together and building language skills.

I’ve seen children get inventive, hoisting up characters in the bucket, sending the enemy to the “dungeon” below the trap door and use the swing as a bed. There is no end to imaginative play with this tree house. The set comes with a boy and girl who have been assigned various roles such as princess and prince, but children can’t help bringing additional playmates to the house such as pirates, dolls or critters to joint the action. It adds to the complexity of the story.

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Posted in 3-6 year-olds, 6-8 year-olds, Birth-3 year-olds, Strategies to Enhance Language, Toy Reviews, Video Review | Leave a comment

Toy Review: “Chunky Puzzles” by Melissa and Doug

31wkf6tl7sl_aa160_.jpgWhat toys encourage language development? Look for toys that have flexibility—ones that can be used in many different ways. They inspire your child to be creative and use his imagination. Something as simple as a puzzle should have more options than just placing pieces in the intended slot.

Chunky Puzzle Farm Animals, Safari Animals and Dinosaurs by Melissa and Doug have thick enough pieces that the animals can “stand up”, move around, get a bite to eat or roam on the floor at a pretend zoo or farm. I hear far more language from a child as he pretends with the animals and lets them loose!

The puzzle pieces from Vehicles can go for a sail on the sea, line up on the train track, fly overhead or race down the road with narrated sound effects. Now your child is naming the pieces as well as expanding his vocabulary through pretend play, using verbs, pronouns and prepositions.

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Toy Review: “Rub a Dub, Pirates of the Tub” by Alex

016803.jpgRub a dub dub, who let the pirates in the tub? Your little mate will love the floating, squishable pirates who can squirt water from their mouths and spray enemies with their cannon. Choose from the 38 pieces to construct your island with pirates, a treasure chest, palm trees or birds. Set it afloat and you can start on your raft—sails, pirates and barrels of goodies can be included. Don’t forget your map and compass to keep you on track. Climb onto the floating island and hide out in the cave. Have I mentioned that the octopus and shark are on the loose? Don’t forget to decorate the tub with the foam puzzle pieces that stick and float, building the big pirate ship, compete with sails, steering wheel, lookout and flag.

With all the interchangeable pieces that fit into slots on the floating islands and raft, your child’s pretend play can expand and change with his imagination. Every bath time can be a different story line. All of the pirate accessories stimulate his imagination to create his story. Research has linked pretend play with language development and practice in story telling prepares your child to eventually write creative stories.

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Bi-Lingual Toddlers: Encouraging Language Development

I am continually amazed at the ability of babies and toddlers to absorb a second or third language. I shouldn’t be surprised since I share the facts with parents and best ways to expose their child to a second language. But still–I call it magic! Once again, I was at the home of a 19 month-old who is primarily hearing English, but has the opportunity to hear Spanish from an adult, 2-3 days a week. Little Maddie is raising one hand and saying, “mano,” and raising the other hand and saying, “hand.” She is showing that she knows that two words in different languages can represent the same thing. This knowledge that words actually stand for objects is an early metalinguistic skill, when someone can think and talk “about” language.Maddie was starting to “mix” English and Spanish words in her mini-conversations. This is typical of a child learning two languages and will begin to diminish as she gets fluent in both languages.Typically, children aren’t exposed to two languages equally. In Maddie’s case, she is hearing far more English than Spanish so she is speaking in two-word sentences in English and still using only single words in Spanish. Her Spanish will catch up as she logs more hours hearing it and using it. Maddie is showing an understanding that one adult represents Spanish and her mom represents English. She speaks Spanish to her adult friend and English to her mom. Children are able to separate situations and people by the language that they speak to them and therefore answer appropriately. If you’re exposing your child to a second language at an early age, or considering it, here are some advantages that are listed in the literature:

  • Higher capacity for learning the second language as teens or adults
  • Helps their minds expand linguistically in a way that gives them an educational advantage later
  • Deeper appreciation of language and how it words (metalinguistic skills)
  • Comprehend written language sooner than their peers who speak one language
  • Advantage of knowing 2 cultures and being able to speak to a wider range of people

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Learning Language: A Toddler’s First Words

Once again, I had a play session with a mom who told me that her child “didn’t have any words yet.” Her little Will was fifteen months old and typically at that age, children should have a few words that they are saying. I always encourage the parents to listen a little closer and usually they identify some words that their toddler is using.

There is a big variance in what children chose to say first. Unfortunately it isn’t usually “Mommy” which would sure make us moms feel really good! But first words are those that are meaningful to the child. One little girl said, “tickle” first because her mom played a tickle game with her that she loved. A little boy who loved his grandpa and visited him often at his car dealership said “car” first. First words are not going to be accurate in terms of their sounds, as a matter of fact they may not sound anything like the word, but for your child they represent that object or person. For example, “da” means more, “g” means dog, and “ish” is fish.

How can you tell if your child is truly saying a word?

A true word:

1. Must have meaning each time it is used. So each time your toddler points to the TV and says “do” for his Elmo DVD, it has the same meaning which can be “I want my Elmo DVD,” or “I want to watch my Elmo DVD.”

2. Shows your child’s intention to communicate. “do” is being used to communicate with you that he wants to see his Elmo DVD.

3. Is used flexibly in different contexts—home, school, or a playmate’s house. So if you are at home or at grandma’s house, your toddler would use “do” to communicate the Elmo DVD because “do” is a true word representing that object no matter where your child is.
4. Is a simple one or two syllable utterance that stands alone, with a pause after it
5. Is used in conversation with people.

6. Is determined by its usefulness in your child’s environment. First words are often objects, people or pets that are integral to your child’s daily activities such as dog, ball, juice, or cracker.

Listen closely and you will start to hear the differences in the utterances your child makes. Sure enough, the longer I played with little Will and his mom, who I referred to earlier, the more little words we heard. He rounded the corner and said “uice” in response to mom asking if he was hungry or wanted juice. When who told him not to go up the stairs he said something resembling “no.” Always reinforce your child’s attempts at words even though they might not sound correct. When he says “da” for cup, simply affirm him with “Yes, you want a CUP,” emphasizing the correct way to say the word he intended. This gives your child the correct model for him to imitate and internalize.

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Using Language When You Discipline Your Toddler

I had a “play on words” session with a mom of a sixteen-month-old today and she asked about discipline. She said she hasn’t changed the volume of her voice yet and mostly “re-directs” her son when he is doing something wrong such as going for the electrical outlets or the fireplace

I told her there is no reason to raise your voice because your tone can send the message. I was recently with a fifteen-month-old and his parents and I was amazed at their consistent and effective discipline with their little boy. When he started to do something dangerous they simply said, “No, sir” in a calm but firm voice. Now, mom is from the South which explains the gentile manners, but her quiet manner was very effective and consistent.

Here are some tips on using language to manage behavior when you have to discipline your toddler:


  1. Don’t overuse “no” but save it for issues of safety and disobedience. The word will become less effective if it is overused.

  1. Simply state your child’s name and “no” followed by a simple explanation such as, “Lily, no, the stove is hot.” Or “No, Sam, we don’t touch the fireplace, it burns.” Young children can’t comprehend a long explanation and it is better to have effectively related the concept of “no.” Since their attention span is short, they may go right back to the forbidden object, so you will need to repeat yourself. As your child’s understanding of language develops, she will begin to connect danger or “no” with the simple consequences that you have linked with your use of “no”: outlets—dangerous, fire—hot, stove—burn etc.

  1. Re-direct your child to something safe and interesting to play with. Offer a few choices and then join in her play, letting her decide what toy to play with.




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Speech and Language Delay in Toddlers

I often run across parents who are concerned about whether their toddler is delayed in language and should be evaluated. Many times I get calls when a child is around 15 months old. Recently a dad contacted me concerned that his 15-month-old Jack wasn’t saying any words yet.

I am not surprised that parents become alarmed at this age because this is just about when a child typically begins his “vocabulary explosion”. The second half of the second year is when children start to say all those wonderful rich words that they have been storing up in their minds!

Typically a child will say his first word around her first birthday, are saying 6-10 words by around 15 months and by 2 years of age they should have around 50 words and be putting two word together like “my truck” or “blue ball.” I advise parents to wait until about 18 months and if your child is not saying any words, speak to your pediatrician and consider contacting a speech pathologist for an evaluation. A good place to start is your Birth-3 Provider whose number you can get from your pediatrician. I know in the state of Connecticut their evaluation is free so it is helpful to get their professional opinion on your child’s language level. Many components are looked at, not just the number of words your child is saying. They will evaluate what your child understands, gestures, means she is using to communicate etc. If you are looking for a private speech pathologist you can log on to the ASHA (American Speech Hearing Association) website and find a professional in your area.

Do not panic. I see some 18-20 month-olds who look delayed and some indeed need intervention but others just need a “jump start” by giving parents suggestions and strategies on how to talk to their child to encourage language. (offering choices, modeling speech not asking too many questions etc.)

It is always best to go with your intuition. As parents you know your child the best. I am so impressed with the information parents give me, because they know their child. If you feel she is behind and should be checked then pursue it.










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