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Developing Language

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Question: I work in the preschool classroom (toddler and two-year old room) of a corporate sponsored child care program. We have a visiting education director. She urges us to talk with the toddlers, and listen to them. In my family and neighborhood, people don't talk and listen to young children; it simply isn't the custom. My friend works in the infant room. Talking to babies seems even sillier to her than it does to me.

Most practical articles and books about child care talk about the importance of looking into a child's eyes, answering the child, singing, looking through books and talking about the pictures with children, explaining everything during the day in simple terms, saying little rhymes and playing baby games, helping them learn how to express their feelings and wants in words, speaking politely to them, making jokes with them, and so forth. I took a course about language development, but all I got out of it was that theorists use jargon and argue a lot about who's right when common sense suggest that they all have a piece of the truth.

Children all over the world have always grown up able to talk, unless they have hearing, mental or other special problems. Why, suddenly, all this business about having conversations with them? This book emphasizes this too.


You're entirely correct that the average child will learn the language spoken in his or her family and community simply because the ability to learn language is rooted in the biological nature of human beings. As the child's body and mind mature, so does the ability to understand and speak a language. Which language? Naturally, it will be the language spoken all around the baby/child, complete with dialect, accent, and details specific to the family's socioeconomic group. Whether or not people consider themselves language models, they are "demonstrating" a language (or two if they're bilingual), with a particular dialect or accent, pronunciation style, vocabulary, set of cadences and idioms, and are saturating the little human being in it.

Whether or not they think of it that way, these people are providing a total immersion language learning lab. Children imitate and practice by babbling away much of the day in a specific manner that changes with their maturational developmental level. Whether or not people have ever heard of (or believe in) behaviorist theory, they naturally "reinforce" certain of the sounds babies, one and two-year-olds utter - by responding to them, and repeating them - and "extinguish" those sounds that don't "mean" anything to them - by ignoring them, thus decreasing the probability that the child will keep "saying" them after a few years of just enjoying making sounds and weeding out the ones that "don't work."

What you say is true; in many cultures and socioeconomic groups, adults don't attend to what little children are saying to them, and don't have conversations with children, yet words and even grammar somehow unfold and are absorbed (probably some of each). The children develop normal language.

Your education director's reason for encouraging staff to chat with children is probably that she's trying to aid you in making your program a high quality family child care or center setting is that adults have lots of pleasant interactions with each child, including language interactions. Yes, language will develop without special attention or intervention. Yet there is much we can do to enhance it. Because possessing excellent language skills is basic to so many kids of excellence in life - including reading and interpersonal success - if we're aiming high all around in our child developing work, we have to consider it important to facilitate language development.

Why do young children need language?

The development of language - first nonverbal, then verbal - is an essential element in infants', toddlers', and two-year-olds' constant efforts.

  • to connect in warm and mutually trusting ways with appreciative parents and caregivers - to develop a feeling of inclusion, a basic human need,
  • to cause parents, major caregivers, and other miscellaneous people around them to respond to the signals and grins the little ones give - and, soon, to their words, phrases, and sentences - in order to develop a feeling of personal effectiveness,
  • to create sense out of their surroundings - to develop confidence in their ability to comprehend - to develop confidence in their intellectual competence,
  • to coordinate and control to some small but swiftly increasing extent "id" part of their personalities (the purely emotional, volatile, not yet socialized part) - e.g. to use words instead of claws to get what they want (or they would soon be ostracized from the human community)
  • to become separate selves, autonomous people capable of stating their needs and of other communicative competencies
  • to become competent members of their cultures and communities (families, ethnic groups, child care programs, etc.), able to understand instructions, express ideas and feelings in accordance with the cultural customs of those around them; become able to get peers' and grown-ups' attention and cooperation; become able to assist in comforting peers and adults appropriately, and
  • to connect with siblings, cousins, little friends and neighbors, and regular baby friends in child care settings


As they grow older, children need language for additional reasons, but these are the reasons that children younger than three need words and other communications skills.

Caregivers can encourage natural language development

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.

Language Competence

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, cadences, 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 interdependent 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 months of age - certainly by twenty-four 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 a 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, then 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.

Modeling Language

We model language by saying the same things over and over and over, and naming the same objects, as we go through our routines with children. We're modeling the grammar of our culture or subculture (for example, Chinese or BEV - Black English Vernacular), as well as vocabulary. Most people who live and work with young children spontaneously simplify their language, stripping it of confusing and cluttering extras, and coming straight to the point.

Some tricks:
Refine the child's pronunciation by accepting the language she gives us (not correcting her), and then pronouncing the word correctly as we repeat her communication back to her by way of communication: "Yes Sal can have some milk." Sal had asked for "mim." Language learning is interactive - it takes at least two people for progress to occur - one to try it, the other to respond to it (reinforce it) and refine it so it becomes possible for folks other than the tuned in mother or father to understand it.

Expand the child's shorthand communications toward sentences in the same manner; the caregiver repeats almost what Sam said: Mom plays back, "Sam says, 'I wanna see doggy.'" Sam had said, "I wanna doggy," but had intended to communicate that he wanted to see the dog standing just outside the gate of the caregiver's home.

Negotiate each communication with the toddler. Jerome Bruner points out that mothers, fathers, and other caregivers … often do not know what their children have in mind when they vocalize or gesture, nor are they sure their own speech has been understood by their children. But they are prepared to negotiate in the tacit belief that something comprehensible can be established.

Conversing with very young children is something of a joint problem-solving process. Communication always occurs in a context - the child is eating, trying to open something, looking at something, feeling tired, feeling constrained - so a combination of using context clues and trial and error usually solves the problem. As in any learning, a child progresses faster if challenged at the frontier of what she already knows and knows how to do than if merely left to mature. Caregivers can watch for language delays and collaborate with parents as needed.

Language Delay

Some children, for many reasons, experience serious delays in language development. Caregivers will want to talk tactfully about the child's language development with his parents, after ensuring that the parents have observed other same-age children in the group, and have realized that their child's language is significantly less developed. Parents and caregivers need not be psycholinguists, but do need to notice children who don't seem to be progressing as expected, in case evaluation by a suitable specialist is called for. Normally, by the time a baby reaches her first birthday she:

  • lets caregivers know what she needs them to do or to give her, and protests if they don't (effects their behavior), and
  • gets, and for a while keeps, caregivers' attention because she seeks inclusion (social interaction, affiliation, relationship, communication, to become involved in a joint activity).

Can language acquisition research and theory help caregivers?

Reading and taking courses in any and all segregated subjects pertaining to child development deepens our understanding and enjoyment of our work, so it's probably a plus that you took the language course. Language experts have been disputing for two centuries exactly how humans acquire language. They believe that knowing the origins of language acquisition is of paramount importance. Undoubtedly it is to academics who devote whole careers to this specialty. However, our "career" is developing children, and the only things we really have to know about language acquisition are:

  1. how to "say" what little children are seeing, doing, and needing and encouraging them to do the same,
  2. how to listen attentively and respond appropriately,
  3. how to notice when language isn't coming along within a normal range, and
  4. how to work with colleagues, parents, and specialists (if needed) to help children with language delays or special problems.

Researchers and theoreticians who have specialized in language acquisition have agreed for many decades that human babies are born with an innate ability to learn language - whatever language is spoken around them. Piaget pointed out that although the human species' intellect is psychobiologically programmed to mature through stages of thinking (from concrete to symbolic), it's activated and challenged by running into challenging experiences at the frontiers of its capacity that cause it to react by assimilating thinking and behavior to it. In exactly the same way, researchers and theoreticians (Bruner, for example) tell us, the human species' language learning capability matures through stages of readiness but is activated and challenged by running into experiences that challenge it to understand or to use more language. To a degree, being aware of the major findings of research and theory in all special aspects of child development can help caregivers. As caregivers, we have to blend splintered knowledge together and balance it, because our expertise is in helping whole children develop in all dimensions, with emphasis on the development of high self esteem, sensible self-discipline, and good, strong character (ego).

Writing in "Zero to Three," the bulletin of the National Center for Clinical Infant Programs, Prizant and Wetherby point out:

When caregivers describe the communications behavior of infants and toddlers, their comments frequently suggest the close link between the development of communication and language in the early years and the growth of socioemotional competence. Unfortunately, researchers have begun only recently to integrate socioemotional and communicative perspectives on development. The extensive body of research on communication and language development has given little consideration to socioemotional development - the growth of a child's ability to experience and express a variety of emotional states, to regulate emotional arousal, to establish secure and positive relationships, and to develop a sense of distinct, capable self (Prizant and Wetherby, 1990). Similarly, research on socioemotional development has rarely considered the impact of emerging language and communicative competence on child's socioemotional well-being and social competence.

The fragmented picture of early development that has resulted from such separated lines of research hampers not only our intellectual understanding of young children, but also our efforts to assess and assist infants and toddlers at developmental risk. Recent literature on language and communication delays in young environmentally at-risk children, and on the co-occurrence of emotional and behavioral disorders and communication disorders in older children clearly points to the close relationship of these aspects of development. Yet assessment approaches continue to chart isolated developmental strands or domains. And fragmented assessments all too often lead to disjointed intervention strategies.

Michael Lewis explains: A child is born a speaker and born into a world of speakers. To recognize this is of the utmost importance for our understanding of the growth of language and its place in human development.

The linguistic growth of a child in his social environment moves forward as the continued convergence and interaction of two groups of factors - those that spring from within the child himself and those that impinge upon him from the community around him. The growth of many other creatures has, of course, this dual character. Where a child's development differs is that he is so much more richly endowed with the potentialities of speech and that he grows up in a social environment permeated by symbolization, the most potent form of which is language.

This is why we encourage parents and other caregivers to chat with children. In many mundane ways during our days with little children we support and encourage their language development - or neglect to.

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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