Language development – Part 2: Principles that are the stem and branch of speech

These principles are the stem and branch of the “language plant” we discussed in our first language development article.

Family members and early childhood educators can use play and interaction strategies related to these principles.
Family members and early childhood educators can use play and interaction strategies related to these principles.

In our first Michigan State University Extension article, “Language development – Part 1: Relationships at the roots,” we discussed some of the foundations of language acquisition. When children have a firm bond with others, they feel secure and motivated to communicate with them. In this article, we will explore more strategies to encourage language development.

Our principle resource for this discussion comes from “How babies talk: Six principles of early language development,” a research report by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golonkoff. The authors share specific strategies for helping young children learn to understand and express thoughts, feelings and ideas.

According to Hirsh-Pasek, “Language learning requires sensitive and responsive conversations with children where language input is tailored to the interest and timing of the child’s attention. Adults who take turns in interactions with young children, share periods of joint focus, are sensitive and responsive to children, and express positive affect provide children with the scaffolding needed to facilitate language and cognitive growth”

While the statement above is a succinct summary, let’s examine each of the principles in terms of play and interaction strategies that family members and early childhood educators can use.

Principle 1: Children learn the words they hear most

Recent research has confirmed that one factor that helps children learn language, which is connected to success in school, is the number of words children hear on a regular basis. So, one thing we can all do is talk more with and around our very young children—infants, toddlers and preschoolers. Children need to hear the common words you use every day, so don’t make it short and sweet. Expand on what you are saying by adding details to your conversation. Talk about what you are doing. Even though they may not respond to what you are saying, they are listening, comparing, recalling and meaning-making by putting the pieces together.

Principle 2: Interactive and responsive rather than passive context favors language learning—social interaction matters

When we say that “social interaction matters,” we are emphasizing the “back and forth” nature of communication. Research supports the fact that children need real-life exchanges with real people. Even though they hear language spoken on the television or computer, they do not learn much from the process because it is not fluid and interactive. It is not personal, like an exchange with another human being. During play, at meal times, while preparing for bed or reading a story are all excellent opportunities for family members or teachers to have conversations with children. We may be conversing in complex sentences and the child conversing in gestures or grunts, but it is a learning opportunity for our child that we don’t want to miss.

Principle 3: Children learn words for things and events that interest them

This principle emphasizes the self-centered aspect of young children. It is all about ME. They will give more attention to the things they care about, such as food they like, people they know and toys they play with. We may want to talk about how the dishwasher broke down in the middle of the cycle, but most young children will quickly lose interest in that topic. They would rather talk about the snow outside the window, wearing new red boots or their dog’s wet feet. This part is not rocket science.

Principle 4: Children learn words best in meaningful contexts

For young children, the immediate moment is more accessible to them than some of their memories. Talking with a child about an event that occurred in the past is not as interesting as what they are doing now. If teachers and family members can connect their words to playful experiences, such as enjoying walking through the snow to the house or toweling off after playing in the tub, children will be more attuned to learning the words that go with those experiences.

Further, this is why teachers should plan and use rich vocabulary to accompany learning experiences for children and add rich vocabulary into ordinary play experiences that children create for themselves. Using words such as “masterpiece,” “construct,” “structure” and “configuration” to the building activities in the block area will encourage new thoughts and new language.

Principle 5: Vocabulary learning and grammatical development are reciprocal processes

Exposing children to proper grammar and rich vocabulary will help them learn literacy through a natural process. It is not necessary to study and quiz children on grammar. As they are first learning to use language to communicate, they will make errors in grammar such as “Me do it” or “Lots of fishes.” However, if they habitually hear how to speak properly, they will absorb the rules of language and learn to correct their own grammar errors. This requires family members and teachers to monitor their own speech because we are the models from which our children learn. Anyone who has heard their preschooler use profanity can attest to this principle!

Principle 6: Keep it positive

This final principle also requires us to examine our own use of language. We use language to express not only our thoughts but our feelings as well. Our young children are highly sensitive to emotional states and pay close attention when we express passion or excitement. Intense reactions can frighten children and inhibit their ability to concentrate and learn. If we want to encourage our child to learn language, we need to keep the emotional atmosphere positive and respectful. Even when we have a serious message to share, shouting, shaming and threatening incite fear and anger in children rather than the thought-processes necessary to gain new understanding. A calm, firm approach will help children feel safe enough to be able to access their new language skills.

Language and communication is a beautiful thing. It is part of what makes us unique as human beings and it links us together in a profound manner. These principles are the stem and branch of the plant roots we discussed in Part 1. When you stop and think about it, language acquisition occurs so rapidly that most of us gain 95 percent of our skills before age 5. And, as intense as it is, it is also as common as—staying with our plant analogy—dirt.

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