So we know with a pretty high degree of certainty that the amount of talking done with children during their infancy and toddlerhood has a great effect on their language development, but what about HOW we talk to them? Does the way we talk to them make a difference, as well?
Yes, it does.
We all know about “parentese,” the sing-songy way that caregivers naturally speak to infants and small children. Parentese seems to be some sort of hypnotic agent to kids’ brains! They pay attention to you, smile at you, look at you with wonder when you speak that way. Why? When you speak this way, you highlight speech sounds and stress syllables with higher volumes that make it easier for them to detect and categorize the sounds and sound patterns of their language. This is called phonological awareness. To learn more, click here.
So, we’ve covered the “how much” and the “how” to talk to little children, but what about the “what”? What kinds of words and sentences do we speak to children to help optimize their language experience?
Many parents, health care professionals, child care professionals and even Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs) have become accustomed to shortening longer sentences to simplify them. This usually means taking out grammatical parts of words or sentences. This is done with the hopes that simplification to core vocabulary helps build language understanding and expression. This is called “telegraphic” speech. Here are some examples:
“Put shoe on” (Correct form: Put your shoe on.)
“Mommy do” (Correct form: Mommy will do it.)
“Give daddy” (Correct form: Give it to daddy.)
Although people’s hearts are in the right place, this technique, in fact, has been shown to NOT be helpful (never mind that it also sounds a little strange and nonsensical). Recent research has shown the opposite effect: Children spoken to in short, grammatically correct sentences had larger vocabulary growth than children spoken to in shortened sentences. Please contact me if you would like the original research.
The theory behind this goes back a little bit to the sing-songiness of parentese. When we speak in full sentences, not only are we modelling grammar words that are important to developing receptive and expressive vocabulary, but we are also naturally stressing different words as we speak. Therefore, by using correct sentences, we automatically highlight important words, and hence raise a child’s attention and awareness to these words.
So the take-home message is this:
Keep it short, simple, but GRAMMATICALLY CORRECT! (We don’t need to speak like cave people to our children!)