When a person cares about another person, he or she usually wants to communicate with that person. An infant or toddler will want to communicate with you when she feels safe and cared for in loving ways. Infants and toddlers communicate when it is pleasant to communicate, when the affect or feeling of the communication is warm and loving, and when they understand that their communication attempts will get a response.
2. Respond and Take Turns—Be an Interactive Language Partner
Through your interactions with the infant or toddler you are helping the child learn to use language to communicate. When a toddler asks for a drink and a parent or teacher responds, then the toddler learns that communication is an effective way to get his needs met. When an infant makes sounds or a toddler uses words, respond and then wait for the child to take a turn with sounds, words, or sentences. This conversational dance with each partner taking a turn helps the child learn the pragmatics of conversation—that people take turns exchanging ideas in a social context. These adult-child conversations build young children’s vocabulary as well as their ability to take language turns—a skill that helps them become a conversational partner and a capable communicator. Try not to dominate the conversation with a baby (Girolametto, 2000) by taking more turns than the baby or bombarding the child with language. Instead, focus on reciprocal and responsive interactions with equal give-and-take conversations.
3. Respond to Nonverbal Communication
Can babies that can’t talk try to tell you something? Yes, they can. A yawn can mean the baby is tired or bored, snuggling in to an adult’s body tells you that the baby feels safe and relaxed, a toddler running to you tells you she wants to connect with you, and kicking feet say “I’m uncomfortable.” When babies turn away, they may be communicating that they need a break from the interaction. When infants or toddlers use a strong communication cue, such as arching their back, it means “that hurts,” or “stop what you are doing.” When adults understand and respond to infants’ and toddlers’ nonverbal communication they let children know that they are communication partners. With responsive adults, infants and toddlers are soon using sounds and words, while still maintaining many nonverbal ways to communicate.
4. Use Self-Talk and Parallel Talk
Self-talk is talk that adults use to describe what they are doing while with the infant or toddler. For example, a teacher who is diapering a baby might say, “I’m getting your diaper. Now I’m lifting your feet. I’m putting the diaper on. All done.” Parallel talk occurs when an adult talks about what a child is doing. For example, while the child is playing or eating the adult might say, “Mmm, you’re eating your toast” while pointing to the toast. These strategies tie language to an act or object manipulation, making words come alive and have meaning for the child.
5. Talk Often with the Child, Using a Rich and Varied Vocabulary
Does it matter how much you talk with an infant or toddler, sing, and look at picture books together? Research shows that the number and quality of the conversations that adults have with infants and toddlers directly affects how they learn to talk (Hart & Risley, 1999; Honig & Brophy, 1996; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). The number of total words and different words that the parent uses with the child daily, the number of conversations, and the positive affirmations from the parent are all related to infants’ and toddlers’ language development (Hart & Risley, 1999).
Researchers have found astounding differences in how much parents talk with their children. Some infants and toddlers hear an average of 600 words an hour while others hear as many as 2100 words an hour. Some children hear 100 different words an hour while others hear 500 different words an hour. These differences in