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Help Your Child Talk: Learning to Understand Language

Humans communicate through a two-way process. You talk, while I listen and decode your words in order to understand what you mean. Then I reply, while you listen, decode and understand, according to research reported in 1948 by Shannon and Weaver in “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”.

For this process to work when you talk to your child, he needs to understand the words you use as well as the grammatical structures needed to assemble them together into meaningful sentences.

Without that understanding, your communication is less effective and the message is lost or scrambled..

Understanding: infants
At birth, your baby does not understand any words, although he can hear your voice and enjoy its sound, finding it soothing. At this time, his concern is to make sure you respond to his demands for food, warmth and comfort, to keep him alive. All his brainpower focuses on fulfilling his immediate needs.

As he grows, and his billion brain cells start to build connective pathways to each other, he begins to recognize that your voice sounds different at certain times and in certain circumstances. Sometimes you speak quietly, but sometimes you sound agitated or urgent.

He starts to notice the differences and he turns to look at the person speaking, interested in the noise their speech makes. He gets excited when he hears your voice approaching, associating it with the good things about a parent: food, comfort, warmth and safety.

Understanding: six months
At around 6 months, he turns to the sound of doorbells or dogs barking, hearing the difference between those noises and speech. Now he realizes that your speech is more than simple noise. He hears some sound combinations repeated. He hears you say “no” or “bye-bye” many times, and the link between meaning and sound grows in his brain.

He starts to recognize the sound of his own name, probably the word he hears most often. He also begins to understand the language of gesture, including waving.

Understanding: gesture
He needs to hear words and see gestures in context, to work out what they mean.
This is a good time to start introducing simple signing. Signing allows him to associate gestures with words and their meaning.

Gestures are easier for him to understand and copy than words. They’re bigger, which makes them easier to see and the movements are uncomplicated. A wave is one simple movement, easy to decode and understand, while “bye-bye” is a string of complex small sounds put together in a special pattern.

Signs are also easier for him to make, as they need fewer fine motor skills: and his motor skills are still developing alongside his language.

Understanding: 12 months to 2 years
Now he recognises several single words that he hears often in the same context. He understands that “daddy” is the word for his daddy, and that every time you say “milk” he gets to drink some. He puts two and two together and understands the meaning of those first words. He even tries them out himself, copying the words you say.

At first, he links a word to just one thing: take “dog” for example. In your child’s first year, “dog” was a string of sounds that had no meaning. He hears that collection of sounds repeated many times. It begins to have a familiar ring about it, until he notices that every time he hears those sound combinations, that furry animal that barks and licks is in the room.

Every time he hears that particular string of sounds, there is this thing that you call “dog” around. At first, it may be the family dog. Then he may hear those sounds while you point to another dog next door or to a picture in a book. He hears “dog” each time.

He has to adjust his understanding of “dog”. Perhaps the word refers to any animal with four legs, or to anything with a collar. It could be any or all of these. But he hears different words used, such as “cat” or “horse”. Gradually, he learns that different animals have different names, or labels, and he recognizes those different labels.

His understanding grows so fast that by 2 years old he understands 200 words and more.

Learn more from How To Help Your Child Talk and Grow Smarter, our eBook for Kindle, iPhone and iPad. Click on the book cover at the side of the page and find out how much you can do to help your child talk.