Language is instinctive and, for the most part, happens naturally, says Rachel Cortese, a speech language therapist with the Child Mind Institute. Children learn to talk and listen as they grow.
“As all parents know, words aren’t the only way to communicate. Young children point, make eye contact and use body language to give us messages,” says Rachel. She adds that recognising these early conversation signs and encouraging them helps to set the stage for future speech and language.
In fact, your baby starts “talking” to you from birth. When you interpreted her cries and met her needs, you started the reciprocal relationship between verbal communication and having needs met. Rachel explains this encourages your child to communicate her needs though non-verbal means. “Eventually, words will become the most efficient way for them to communicate with us, but until then parents shouldn’t overlook the importance of shaping nonverbal communications.” This is the start of her conversations with you.
“One of the most interesting things about the development of language in children is that it’s closely related to play,” says Rachel. “The time period when kids begin producing their first words, usually around 12 to 13 months, is also the same time that symbolic play evolves. By symbolic play, I mean something like a child holding a banana to her ear and pretending it’s a phone.”
This makes sense adds Rachel, as children need to first learn symbolically in order to use language. By encouraging imaginative play, you are helping her expand her language.
Self-regulation is also an important part of conversation, but this can be hard for toddlers to understand. It will take time for your child to learn that conversation is about talking, listening, and talking again.
The experts share that your child learns from you, and there are many ways where you can encourage the art of conversation. One suggestion is to manipulate the environment, so she is encouraged to ask for the item she would like. Try putting a favourite item or food just out of reach and wait for her to ask for it.
“Another fun way to get kids communicating is to pretend to be forgetful,” says Rachel. During a routine you have established, change things up by putting her shoes on before her socks, for example. “If your daughter is used to her socks coming before shoes, she is going to notice the change in routine and ‘catch’ you being forgetful.”
Singing a favourite song or reading a favourite book can also be a conversation starter. Rachel suggests starting the activity and then pausing, allowing your toddler to fill in the blanks. “This not only encourages her to retrieve and use new vocabulary words, but also teaches her turn-taking and that using language in a back-and-forth exchange that’s fun!”
Of course, the challenge comes when she masters this art a little too well and starts talking back or interrupting. This happens when your toddler can’t control her urge to talk and her desire to communicate is stronger than her desire to listen.
But, unless it’s an emergency, it’s important to encourage your toddler to wait her turn. This can be done by reminding her that your family rule is to speak politely and that she should say “excuse me”. Continue your conversation until she says, “excuse me” and when she does, reward her with praise.
“Talking and communicating with others should be fun,” says Rachel. “Language is something kids acquire naturally, so we want to watch what they’re interested in, observe and listen how they communicate and help bring them to the next level of language skill.”
The more you talk to her, encourage her, comment, describe things around you and ask her to do the same, the more she will communicate back. The art of language and discussion is a lifelong journey that starts today.
Kim Bell is a wife, mother of two teenagers and a lover of research and the way words flow and meld together. She has been in the media industry for over 20 years, and yet still learns more about life from her children everyday.