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Now They’re Talking; Chicago Children’s Museum: Baby Talk Helps With Early Language Development


CHICAGO, May 4 -- Children’s ability to learn to talk — whether it’s with words, symbols or signs — is nothing short of astounding. During the first few years of life, children crack the language code. Rather than merely imitating what they hear, they take language apart and figure out how it works, then put words together in novel, sometimes funny, but nearly always logical ways. How do they do this?

Baby Talk Helps Babies Talk

Even the most reserved adults will launch into gooey, animated speech when they see a baby. Baby talk, or “parentese” draws infants’ attention to language and helps them learn to speak. For one thing, parentese slows down speech so babies can hear discrete sounds and figure out where one word starts and another begins. And those exaggerated facial expressions and shameless baby-staring? Face-time helps babies figure out how to make their mouths do what yours is doing.

Agreeing to Agree

As amazing as babies are at talking, the first words out of their mouths are open to some interpretation. Caregivers may have to work to understand what a child is trying to say. “Baba” in one family might mean bottle, while in another it stands for daddy or blanket. It all depends on the child’s intent, and that’s the remarkable part—that the sounds or sign stand for something.

Modeling the Rules

Just by listening, children detect the grammatical rules and patterns in how we talk. Baby talk is good for babies, but children also need to hear sentences. “Layla up,” Layla says, using the fewest words possible to get her meaning across. “Do you want me to pick you up?” Papa replies, extending what she says and providing a correct model. Children who refer to themselves by name, soon learn how to use “me,” “mine” and “I” — not by rote but by seeing how others use these words. Kids’ mistakes make sense and demonstrate their ability to create novel sentences. “I catched the ball,” Charley says, over-applying a rule he’s figured out on his own. “Yes,” his mom agrees. “You caught it!”

Opening Gifts Together

Language comes in different packages: conversations, letters, emails, stories, jokes, song and poetry are just a few examples. Experiencing these together expands children’s expertise while building positive associations. Talking to your child at the grocery store, recalling a recent trip to the zoo, telling stories, discussing a book you’ve read, writing a letter to grandma — all of these things build language.

It’s All About Reading

Learning to read builds on children’s language abilities and on the learning they’ve been doing from the time they’re born. Their awareness of the sounds in words begins when they’re babies, and this “phonemic awareness” enables them to recognize letter-sound connections. Reading requires knowledge of words, language forms and structures, as well as information about the world around them. Reading to children (and later, their reading to themselves) enriches their language development.

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