When first thinking of this post, I wasn’t sure if I, in good conscience, could write about this one without confessing, up front, that I not only have used baby talk, but still cherish some of the baby-talk words that my kids used in early language development. Who can resist repeating and affirming the request for the “Ba-ba” AKA, the bottle. Or the many baby words that follow for “outside” or “dump truck” or “pretty?” My son named his cherished sleeping blanket, “Geekie.” He was trying to say, “get it!” when he would throw it out of the crib and yell for me to come in and “get it” for him, but it came out, “geekie” and we reinforced it and thus, the blanket is still referred to by all as “Geekie.” (He’s seven and a half, now, and still sleeps with Geekie…but that’s a post of a different color.)
We all know that using baby talk is frowned upon, or is it? There’s a lot of research that supports talking in a cooing tone of voice actually helps infants develop language in its early stages. We’re using crazy faces and big eyes and connecting with our babies–the “ooooos” and the “ahgooooos” and zerberts. Anything less at this stage of development would fall short. It has its time and place and is gone all too fast.
Now, the problem comes in (when and if) we’re talking to our toddlers and our preschoolers using baby talk. They’re growing and learning and we need to lead the way. I love the mistakes they make when they mispronounce or misuse new words out of context. Not only is it adorable, it’s impressive! They’re trying new words on for size and taking them out for a spin. Our response should be one of excitement! “What a great word, tell me more about what you mean!” Listen to their explanation and help direct them with a more appropriate word and then use their word in a proper context (if appropriate, tee-hee-hee). When we read with them and take time to talk about new words and their meaning, it creates a learning environment that’s happening inside (new brain connections) and outside (how long until they use their shiny, new word in conversation?). Using a rich vocabulary in casual conversation is indeterminately valuable. It starts at home and, hopefully, continues in their school environment. A recent study cited “surprisingly clear evidence that when children were 4 years old the kind of language they experience in their classroom made a difference first for their kindergarten performance and then their fourth grade reading abilities.” Talk about a return on your investment!
We can often underestimate what our little ones can understand, but when we use “big words” in conversation, they will either understand and learn the word based on the context and the actions that follow OR they will ASK you what it means–win-win! Instead of saying, “No, not now, you have to wait,” we can say, “No, not now, I need you to be patient.” Patience is a word that has greater value to you and to them. You’re asking them to demonstrate a practice. It’s a practice to be praised and cultivated! We can recognize patience in others. We can acknowledge that being patient is difficult (ah, another good word!). We can talk about the opposite of patient; impatient! We can talk about the difference between being patient and being a patient. Wow, now try that with a word like “wait!”
Using real and rich words with our toddlers and preschoolers will add to their language development, their future reading ability and our repertoire of funny kid stories.
-posted by by Jenny Leggett of Sound Steps in Dallas, a former baby-talker and current rich language user with three children who now read beautifully.