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Caregivers Can Encourage Natural Language Development

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Language is part of so many fundamental efforts infants, toddlers, and two's are engaged in that it's easy to foster language competence while providing routine care, observing play, and facilitating general psychological development. We've mentioned each of the following threads of "what babies are doing" emotionally, socially, intellectually, and physically - and how we can promote them. We have a How Important list to think about:

  • how important it is to develop a close mutually trusting relationship with each of our infants, toddlers, and two-year-olds - including returning their coos and chirps, babble and jargon, and early efforts to use words (usually nouns and verbs because they're more concrete than words like "is" and "the," as is the thinking of our very youngest); we repeat babies' coos, chirps, and simple words; we include singing and reading as we live with little ones,
  • how supportive it is to a baby's emerging sense of self to observe each baby and respond promptly to its expressed (or mysterious) needs in an effort to enable the child to feel personally effective and respected; to look directly into the eyes of a toddler or two when she speaks to us; and to answer helpfully and courteously,
  • how effectively we can encourage senior babies, toddlers, and two's in their earnest and continuous effort to make sense of what's going on, and to feel intelligent (intellectually on top of it).
  • how clearly and cleverly we can help them in their effort by naming, explaining, and commenting (e.g. soon, from his beaming face we can see how smart fourteen-month-old Kelly feels when one adult says to another, "Let's take them out for a walk," and Hurant runs and climbs in the stroller. By confirming his understanding - "Yes! We're going in the stroller!" - we encourage the child to try to understand),
  • how supportively we can strengthen the child's ego as it valiantly struggles from birth on to establish control over id, to accommodate to the onslaught of socialization required to become part of any of the world's cultures while still developing autonomy and pride in self,
  • how firmly but gently our guidance is required as the child slowly learns to solve social problems with language rather than with sobs, screams, or scratching,
  • how patiently we teach, teaching each child to use words by translating into language what we are doing, and about his everyday play activities (e.g. "I'm washing Adas's face with warm water and a wash cloth. Here, Ada, do you want to wash Ada's face?" " Jemal is using his spoon so well! Jemal is eating mashed potatoes with his spoon." "I see you're making a ball with your clay. What will you do with your clay. What will you do with your ball, roll it? Mush it some more?"); most effective parents and caregivers put a great deal of time into helping each infant, toddler, and two-year-old become communicatively competent,
  • how enormously much of our time with senior babies, toddlers, and two-year-olds is taken up with teaching them how to be socially competent, much of which involves learning to listen to and talk to other people.


The bottom line regarding language is this: A child would not need - so probably would not be genetically psychobiologically programmed to learn - language if she did not live in an interpersonal context - if human beings were not social creatures and did not live in groups. This fact offers us parents and other caregivers a ready-made opportunity to help children learn language as we interact with them, play with them, and show interest in what they're doing, asking logical open-ended questions to stimulate in them thoughts of more things they'd like to say. Young children are tremendously motivated to learn language by their emotional need to be part of the human family.

The growth of language competence in very young children is entirely entangled with the growth of their emotional competence (maturity, ego development) and the growth of their interpersonal competence. If as caregivers we observe carefully, respond warmly and reliably, encourage autonomy, encourage self-discipline, enrich the environment (including with lots of listening and talking to), encourage competencies of all developmentally appropriate kinds, and encourage self-pride, most children's language will progress well. For most children, language just happens. For some children it comes early and very expertly in part because they are taken seriously, listened to, and conversed with frequently throughout the day.


Bruner, Jerome. (1983). Child's talk: learning to use language. New York: Norton.
Lewis, M.M. (1963). Language thought and personality in infancy and childhood. New York: Basic Books.
Prizant, B.M., & Wetherby, A.M. (September, 1990). Assessing the communications of infants and toddlers: integrating a socioemotional perspective. Zero to Three. 11 (1), 1-12.

by: Polly Greenberg adapted by Susan Turben, Ph.D.

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