Learning to talk is a very complex process.
Infants begin learning to talk before they are born. They are hearing voices and noticing the tone, timbre, and volume of those voices. When the child is born, he can identify and will turn his head toward the sound of his mother's and father's voices, distinguishing them from the other sounds and voices in the room. Babies will actually learn the rhythm of speech patterns before they have the ability to form words. It takes direct human relationships for babies to learn to talk,however. Hearing voices on television or radio for example, will not engage the child in the same manner.
It is equally important for the child to have unobstructed hearing as it is to have unobstructed vocalization. So you need to provide time with no other distracting sounds so that the baby can hear your voice; and time to explore the sound and feel of vocalizations within her mouth and throat, so PLEASE take the pacifier out of her mouth!
I once met a child that was still sucking on a pacifier at the age of 4 years old, and even when the pacifier was not in her mouth, her words were still uninteligible. She had learned to form sounds with the obstruction (the pacifier) continually in her mouth. She needed (and fortunately received) some intensive speech therapy in order to learn to speak so that others could understand.
When teaching infants, it is important to “engage the infant in a ‘conversational, back and forth, 'dance’ of sound play, cooing and babbling.” (“Talking Points: A Self Reflection Tool for Caregiver-Child Interactions") When we talk to adults, we have to listen, and take turns talking or "sharing the floor." These are the skills that an infant is learning when we talk to him.
Begin the “conversation” with the baby by first observing the child. Try to identify something that the child is interested in; noticing something that the child is looking at or playing with or an emotion that the child is, in some way, expressing.
Once you have a “topic” for the conversation, begin making eye contact with the child and make an observation statement about something that you just saw. Then pause and wait for the child to respond. When the child begins to babble, watch expressively, continuing the eye contact, and showing interest in what the child is “saying.” As the child continues to babble, nod appropriately or show empathy, depending on the tone of voice and other body language cues the child is using. The baby is learning that you value her; she is also learning about sharing through the rhythm of conversation.
My favorite example of this type of interaction is when the baby that I was holding was babbling excitedly, as if telling a story. His eyes were bright and the tone of his voice and the inflections that he used were as if he was excited about something that had happened and he was telling me about it. As the child “talked,” I listened carefully with my full attention focused on his face. When he paused, I nodded, and asked “what happened next?” or “then what happened?” I noticed that every time that I asked and then paused for his answer, he would continue to “talk” with me. This went on for several minutes until the child tired of talking (or “finished his story”). Ever since the first time that I experienced this “dance” I look forward to the next opportunity to repeat it with other children. It is so much fun to watch the baby as he tells me something and occasionally even points to an object that he is talking about.
As the child grows and begins to have intelligible words, it becomes easier for most people to spend time in conversation with her. Even though you are answering many questions the child is asking, it is even more important for you to be asking questionsand truly listening to the child's answers and opinions. Ask the child what she thinks about something, what is her favorite characterand why, or what she thinks will happen next in a story that you are reading together. These questions should be authentic questions that you want to know the answer to, not just "test questions" where you are trying to learn what the child knows. A good example of an inappropraiate use of the test question format resulted in the child getting frustrated with me, and then refusing to talk at all. In my defense, as you will soon see, I was so delighted by the words that the child was using that I wanted to hear it over and over again.
Here is what happened: one afternoon, I was talking with a child about her favorite animal stickers. She was able to call every animal by name correctly, except the giraffe; this she called a “rapittee”. I was so delighted by the term that she had created, that I kept asking her and pointing to, after every few other animals, to identify the giraffe. She did become very exasperated with me, however, and refused to continue. Although I was enjoying our talking time, she did not.
In this instance, I lost sight of the concept of respecting her. I know that I would not like it if someone did that to me, even if they were enjoying the way that I said something. I would begin to feel that they were making fun of me.
In retrospect, I should have allowed her to move on, perhaps by asking questions about why she liked each of the animal stickers, or if she could tell me a story about one of the animals, or even if she had ever seen one of them in real life. Had I shown more interest in what she liked about the animal stickers, we could have shared a much more meaningful conversation.
It is important to look beyond what the child is saying or the words that are being said, and try to discover what the information that is being shared means to the child. We need to connect emotionally with the child’s storytelling in order to ask more meaningful questions. If we understand the reason that the child is sharing the information, we are able to truly connect, and take part in the conversation rather than just asking meaningless questions. If we can truly be in the moment, and converse with a child about something that is important to him, we will be able to show the child that we respect the person that he is, rather than always trying to find an opportunity to tell him something that he doesn’t yet know.
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