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Language Competence

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When the youngest infants study our faces, listen intently and watch our every move, they’re learning language listening skills, how to coordinate the sounds they hear with the mouth, facial expressions, and body language that go with the sounds, familiarity with the rhythms, and syntax (grammar) of the language spoken by their families. Of these aspects of language acquisition, Jerome Bruner says, “syntax is, perhaps, the most mysterious for…it constitutes a highly intricate and inter-dependent set of rules in every language.”

When a baby smiles or looks interested, distressed, startled, surprised, enraged, pleased, disgusted, displeased, afraid, sad, avoiding, wary, joyous, petulant, anticipating, bored, coy, anxious or confident he is communicating. When a baby, toddler, or two-year-old accepts the invitation we give by holding something out to him, and extends his arm to reach for it, and grasps it, - or offers us something – he’s engaging in reciprocal communication, the back and forth give and take that are the foundational pattern of conversation – human dialogue; he is learning language. When senior babies, toddlers and two’s point at something they want or want us to notice, they’re “talking” – learning language.

Unless there are hearing impairments, certain kinds of learning disabilities, mental retardation, or some other special circumstance, children begin saying words at around twelve moths of age – certainly by 24 months; most toddlers go through a sudden word spurt at about 18 months Children have to have a working knowledge of the world before they have enough knowledge to need to label it. They have to have  concept – and idea – before they have enough motivation to talk about it

Although the writings of child language researchers say that toddlers don’t learn their first words from those that their grown-ups say, but that, instead, their early words name things meaningful to them in their own lives, this would seem to most caregivers a very academic argument. Of course toddlers talk about objects, the actions (walk, ride, climb) that are most meaningful to them – that they experience frequently and as significant in their daily lives; why would they bother to try talking about anything else: All of us talk most about what interests us most, and about the daily trivia in our lives (I’m going to take a shower now,” Please pass the peas,” etc.) But it doesn’t make sense to think that babies aren’t also imitating the words their grownups use to label these objects and actions; how else would they know to attempt to say “bottle” (baba) instead of to try calling it a “zlach” or a “kurzu? So the more we converse with the child about what the child is interested in, the more we encourage his language.

Ask Dr. Susan