Solutions For Parents

Infants » Communication

The Role of Adults in Language Development V

Share This Article: On Twitter On Facebook Print


Dr. Turben wants teachers to have acess to a program she gave to the ODE Annual Conference - How Children Tell Us How They Think Before They Have the Language to Epress Thought ad Feeling

Child may lose interest in conversing:

There are two reasons why conversations of this kind are not helpful to the language learner.  First, they fail to recognize the active and autonomous nature of the child’s construction of his or her linguistic repertoire.  Instead of being cued by Thomas’ communicative behavior, his mother tries to impose her own fully developed adult system and, as a result, provides evidence that is far from optimally adjusted to Thomas’ current needs.  Second, such conversations are, in themselves, unrewarding: there is none of the satisfaction that comes from achieving a shared understanding of the topic.  There is no real meeting of minds.  What is more, if this experience is repeated too often, the child may well lose interest in conversing with adults and, as a result, also lose the opportunities for learning that such conversations can provide.

Talking to children is much like playing ball:

Talking with young children is thus very much like playing ball with them.  What the adult has to do for this game to be successful is, first, to ensure that the child is ready, with arms cupped, to catch the ball.  Then the ball must be thrown gently and accurately so that it lands squarely in the child’s arms.  When it is the child’s turn to throw, the adult must be prepared to run wherever it goes and bring it back to where the child really intended it to go. Such is the collaboration required in conversation, the adult doing a great deal of supportive work to enable the ball to be kept in play.

Encourage children to initiate conversation:

Probably all parents want to help their children learn to talk, and some actively seek advice and guidance.  I have one very general suggestion to make to any adult involved in caring for children: encourage them to initiate conversation, and make it easy and enjoyable for them to sustain it.  The following more specific suggestions should help in achieving that result:

  • When the child appears to be trying to communicate, assume he or she has something important to say and treat the attempt accordingly.
  • Because the child’s utterances are often unclear or ambiguous, be sure you have understood the intended meaning before responding.
  • When you reply, take the child’s meaning as the basis of what you say next – confirming the intention and extending the topic or inviting the child to do so him or herself.
  • Select and phrase your contributions so that they are at or just beyond the child’s ability to comprehend.

In response to a similar parental request for guidance, Roger Brown has this to say:

Concentrate on communicating:

“Believe that your child can understand more than he or she can say, and seek, above all, to communicate.  To understand and be understood.  To keep your minds fixed on the same target.  There is no set of rules of how to talk to a child that can even approach what you unconsciously know.  If you concentrate on communicating, everything else will follow.”

Children need to feel conversation is enjoyable:

It could hardly be put better.  Children have to work out the way in which language is organized for themselves and, fortunately, they are well equipped to do so.  But they can’t do it all on their own.  They need the collaborative help of interested conversational partners who, in aiming to achieve a shared understanding of the topics that are raised and of the activities that they are engaged in together, provide clear and relevant evidence of how the language works and feedback that enables children to evaluate the appropriateness of their current hypotheses.  Above all, children need to feel that conversation is enjoyable and worthwhile and that it enables them to be effective in controlling and understanding their surroundings.  This is what provides the motivation to continue to learn.

Talking is a partnership:

Learning to talk should thus be thought of as the result of partnership: a partnership in which parents and other members of the community provide the evidence and then encourage children to work it out for themselves.  Andrew Lock sums it all up in a single phrase when he describes the process as “the guided reinvention of language.”


Ask Dr. Susan