Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Out of the Mouth of Babes: Language Development

And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,
 Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise!”
(Matthew 21:15-16 ESV)
Isn't it amazing to watch a baby learn to talk?  Now that Jr is 18 months, he has hit the prime developmental period for language development.  I think, for me, watching him learn to communicate is more fascinating and rewarding than watching him take those first few walking steps.  I'm amazed at his little voice, his expressions, and his efforts to communicate. 
Yesterday, for example, he wanted some juice.  He knows that the juice comes in the basketball sippy cup, so he grabbed it out of the refrigerator and took a few sips.  Later, when I opened the refrigerator again, he grabbed his water cup, which is in a plain colored sippy cup.  He said, "water." (Which really sounds like "wa-wa").   That's strange, I thought.  He never grabs the water cup over his juice cup. Then, he handed me his juice cup and said, "wa-wa?"  "No," I said. "It's juice."  He held up the water cup - "wa-wa."  He handed my the juice cup, "wa- wa, bugga da mada bu dow, juice." 
"Hmmm.  I don't understand.  Let's go play."  I'm a master of redirection.  After a couple of minutes, it dawned on me what Jr. was trying to communicate.  In Jr.'s Sunday School class, they often fill his juice sippy cup with water when it's empty of juice.  I opened the juice cup, and low and behold, it was filled with water, not juice.  Jr. was trying to tell me that his juice cup had water in it!  And, he was doing a brilliant job trying to communicate that thought with so few words.  He lit up with smiles when I dumped the water and pulled the juice container out of the fridge. 
The most amazing part of this interchange?  No tantrums!  Eighteen months is the prime-time not only for language development, but also for tantrums.  When children know in their little minds what they'd like to communicate, but can't make the words formulate on their lips or make mommy understand their desire, tantrums are common.  
Most children utter their first intentional word by 15 months.  At 18 months, toddlers should be saying about 5-20 words.  Some are starting to put together two-word combinations, such as "Momma eat" or "Doggy go."  Only the very odd linguistic savant will be saying sentences.  Little boys usually are a bit behind girls in developing language, due to gender differences in their brains. 
Even knowing these developmental trends, parents and researchers are eager to speed communication.  Within the last month, I've seen study after study on which factors encourage and which factors hinder language development.  Some of the findings are surprising.  For instance, many parents teach their children basic sign language to speed communication.  But, a recent study in the journal Child Development suggests that signing does not speed language development.  (Though I am sure it does prevent much frustration and many tantrums!)  Another recent study in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry suggests that high levels of prenatal testosterone may be associated with language delays in males.  Yet another study in  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that maternal depression and use of antidepressants can suppress infant language development.  On the other hand, folic acid during pregnancy may be associated with decreased risk of language delays, says researchers in the Journal of the American Medical Association.  And, I hope you all know by now the evidence gathering against Baby DVDs and videos (in short, they may hurt more than help).  And the list of language development related factors goes on and on and on.
Don't fret, parents and parents-to-be.  Chances are great that your child will learn to talk.  Mute children are rare.  I think we all worry so much about language for a number of reasons, including the growing knowledge that language delays are related to Autism Spectrum disorders.  Can I offer a balanced approach to encouraging your baby's language?
  1. Create a language-rich environment for your baby.  In short, talk, talk, talk.  Baby will learn best from face-to-face interactions with a live model (mommy or daddy).  Don't know what to say?  Just narrate whatever little Bubba is doing.
  2. Read to baby.  Let your little boys seeing daddy read.
  3. Teach a few basic signs (eat, more, drink), not necessarily to speed along their speaking language, but to help with communicating and to prevent frustration during those months when the words are in their heads but don't come out of their mouths quite yet.
  4. Be attentive and "tuned in" to your child's eye gaze and nonverbal expressions.  Is he looking at the cookie but saying puppy?  He probably wants a cookie.  If you can't understand your child's budding vocabulary, try not to become frustrated, or she will too.  Just make a couple of guesses based on context.  If you still aren't getting it, try to distract her with another activity or take her hand and say "show me."
The language of children is an amazing thing. 
I love the story of Palm Sunday, where the children praised Jesus, saying "Hosanna in the highest heaven!"  And then those silly, self-righteous teachers questioned Jesus, saying, "Do you hear what these children are saying?"  See, they didn't believe and acknowledge that Jesus was who he said he was, the Son of God.  So, the children's praise sounded blasphemous to them.  But, the children knew.  And, they shouted it out.  Jesus quoted the Psalms,"From the lips of children and infants, you, Lord, have called forth your praise.”  What a joy for Christian parents to hear their children and infants calling forth praises to Jesus!   One of Jr.'s first signs was to hold both arms up when someone said "Praise the Lord!"  He still does this with a huge grin.  Beautiful praise.  Oh, how joyous the day when he praises the name of the Lord with his words!


  1. Very informative post. I've got to say, I was getting a bit nervous because I'd briefly read this article (that I now question the legitimacy of) that said that by 18 months, toddlers should be able to say over 100 words. Of course, this put me into "super-mommy mode" so I've been torturing my 17 month old daughter for hours on end trying to get her to say more words.

    So far we're only up to about 15 different words, but honestly, I've decided to stop freaking out about it. Especially now that she's in daycare and will hopefully start learning from the other kiddos.

    Thank you so much for posting about this topic!


    1. Thanks Reese. Yes, have no worries! 15 words is great at 17 months. Before you know it, she'll just start blurting out all kinds of words :)


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