Creating a Language-Rich Environment for Your Growing Child

November 6, 2023

From the moment they enter the world, babies’ brains are ready for learning. Fostering a language-rich environment in their first years builds the foundation for lifelong language and communication skills.

Did you know that your baby is born with more than 85 billion neurons in their brain? And in their first year, their brain goes through an astonishing transformation as the number of synapses (connections) grows exponentially. By the age of 3, the number of synapses per neuron has increased from ~2,500 to 15,000. These early years are the time in your baby’s life that they are most ready to absorb and learn about the world around them. 

The First Year 

Many studies have shown that infants are born with the ability to discriminate between all speech sounds, regardless of language1. By 12 months, however, they undergo a perceptual reorganization, making them less capable of discerning non-native speech sounds while becoming more adept at recognizing those of their native language. This is a crucial period when your baby’s brain is fine-tuning its language skills. 

Studies have also highlighted the importance of early social interaction, especially for babies who spend time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Initiatives focused on increasing family involvement and interaction during the early weeks and months have proven to significantly reduce the risk of social communication and language challenges later in life. 

Encouraging multimodal communication, which combines verbal expression with symbolic gestures, during your baby's first year can have a lasting impact. Research shows that children taught both verbal and sign language outperform those taught just verbal communication, even at 24-month follow-ups.

Parents and caregivers play a pivotal role in nurturing their child’s communication abilities, and it starts by creating a language-rich environment for your growing baby. 

Practical Tips for Creating a Language-Rich Environment

When it comes to creating the right conditions for your child to develop their language and communication skills, here are some practical tips you can try out in your daily routines: 

When Talking

  • Get Expressive: Use a variety of tones, pitch, and volume to engage your baby's attention.
  • Talk Slowly: Speak slowly to help your baby recognize word boundaries and respond with sounds and actions.
  • Copy Cat: Mimic your baby's sounds to show that you're paying attention and to develop turn-taking and imitation skills.
  • Narrate Everything: Talk to your baby about your day, what you are making for dinner, a story from your childhood, you name it. Your baby loves to hear your voice!

When Playing

  • Follow their Lead: Following your baby's cues helps to keep them interested, shows you are paying attention, and makes them feel important.
  • Copy Actions & Sounds: This shows them you are interested in what they are doing, and they will be more likely to make the same noise again and copy your sounds and actions.
  • Narrate Play: Using simple words, describe how you see baby playing ("you're jumping! Jump, jump, jump!"), and how you are playing ("I'm building up! Up, up, up! So high!"). This allows baby to hear a label for objects and actions in their environment. 
  • Get Face Time: Interact face-to-face with your baby during playtime. When you’re at their level, they can make and hold eye contact with you, watch your facial expressions, and watch your mouth as you speak. All great building blocks for social communication, holding attention, and imitation skills.

When Reading

  • Read Every Day: In the first six months, your baby craves the sound of your voice. It doesn’t matter what you are reading, as long as you are reading often!
  • Go Off-Script: Don’t worry about sticking to the story exactly as it was written. Feel free to improvise while reading, follow your baby's attention, and talk about what you see and feel.
  • Choose Books with Simple Pictures: This will make it easier for your baby to process the pictures and relate them to the language they are hearing. 
  • Re-Read Favourite Books: Repetition is beneficial for vocabulary growth.

When Singing

  • Sing on Repeat: Children love repetition, which helps them learn new words.
  • Add Actions: It makes it more fun for your little one and facilitates learning language. It can become a fun copycat game as they get older, too.
  • Sing Slowly: Slowing down the pace helps your baby recognize word boundaries and learn new words. You can also slow the rate of YouTube songs (try 0.75 speed!).
  • Play with the Words: Change up the words slightly every now and then to make new rhymes. See if your baby notices! This is a great way to introduce new words in a familiar context.

Create Language-Rich Routines 

Make book reading a part of your baby’s bedtime routine. This is a great way to wind down while providing a language-rich environment and building interest and familiarity with books (an important factor in early literacy!).

Getting dressed can also become a language-rich routine. Talk to your baby about what you are doing, and discuss the nouns, verbs, and prepositions involved.

When you are doing laundry or other household chores, use the opportunity to model language for your baby. You can even create your own songs to sing while you work together. 

Baby Sign-Language

Often, it can be frustrating for young children when they can’t communicate their needs (especially as their verbal language skills are still developing). The use of sign language provides babies with earlier access to language. It’s been shown to support speech and language development in hearing babies, with one study finding that hearing children whose parents encouraged the use of signs outperformed children whose parents encouraged verbal language only. 

Baby signs are a great tool to support early communication skills and can be used with both hearing and hard-of-hearing children to help them communicate their wants and needs. This helps you to be more responsive to their needs and can even help your child begin to regulate their emotions during stressful times.

Screen Time for Kids Under Two: Does it Help or Hinder?

A question that often comes up is how much screen time is too much. For kids under two, there is clear evidence around limiting screen time. The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends that children under the age of two not be exposed to screen time. 

Despite what makers of video “teaching tools” might want you to believe, growing children learn better from face-to-face interactions with people. One study of 1,000 children under 24 months did not find any benefits to viewing infant learning programs. Another study found that for each hour of baby DVDs that infants watched, they spoke an average of 6-8 fewer words. 

We understand that sometimes a screen can come in handy if you need a moment to prep dinner or pack tomorrow’s lunch, but this is a reminder to be cautious of screen time for growing babies. Even if the TV is just on in the background, it can have an impact on babies’ language development. On average, children 8-24 months of age are exposed to 5.5 hours of background TV a day. This is ~45-68% of their waking hours. Background TV has been found to result in a decrease in both the quality and quantity of parent language, which impacts your child’s learning, language, and communication skills. 

Questions about Language Development?

If you have questions or concerns about your child's language development, it's important to seek help early on. Early intervention can make a significant difference. 

At Sprout, we offer Speech and Language assessments, and our SLP is a wonderful resource for families. You can also schedule a hearing screen or a developmental milestone check with our team.

Remember that every child develops at their own pace, so don't be too alarmed if your baby doesn't meet every milestone right on schedule. However, if you notice several unmet milestones, seeking professional guidance is an important and proactive step. 

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References

  1. Kuhl, P. K., Ramírez, R. R., Bosseler, A., Lin, J., & Imada, T. (2014). Infants’ brain responses to speech suggest Analysis by Synthesis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(31), 11238-11245. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1410963111
  2. Vannesa Mueller, Amanda Sepulveda & Sarai Rodriguez (2014) The effects of baby sign training on child development, Early Child Development and Care, 184:8, 1178-1191, DOI: 10.1080/03004430.2013.854780
  3. Goodwyn, S. W., Acredolo, L. P., & Brown, C. A. (2000). Impact of symbolic gesturing on early language development. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 24(2), 81–103. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1006653828895

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