Talk to your child, slowly and simply

How, and how much, you talk to your child is one of the most important factors in her language development. Your child can only learn the words she hears, so using a wide range of vocabulary is better than a small set of basic words. In studies of parent-child interaction, parents with more education and higher income tend to talk more and use a richer vocabulary. If you don't have a college education or a high-paying job, that doesn't mean you can’t help your child develop better language skills. No matter how much or how little education you have, you can focus on speaking slowly and simply to your child.

A slow speaking rate gives your child's brain more time to process what you are saying and how you are saying it. Remember how to count seconds if you don’t have a watch handy? "One one thousand" or "One Mississippi," right? If you do the math, you'll realize that you can pretty easily fit four or five syllables into one second. In other words, a syllable takes about one-fifth to one-fourth of a second. Language flies at our ears thick and fast. Young children who are still learning to process language can easily miss large chunks of what you are saying, even if it seems perfectly clear to you.

Here's another way of thinking about it: if you've ever studied a foreign language for a few months, or even a few years, and then traveled to where that language is spoken, it probably felt like the people were talking at about 120 miles per hour! They actually weren't, but because the language was still new to you, you needed more time to process what they were saying. You probably missed a lot of what they said, because they had gone on to paragraph five while you were still working out the first sentence. That's a lot like what young children experience, especially children with impaired language.

Talking simply doesn't mean "dumbing down" your message. Try to talk to your child at a level slightly above what she is producing. If your child is producing single words and not combining them, try using a lot of two or three word phrases. If she produces two and three word phrases, go for four or five words. This would also be a good time to model grammatical elements like pronouns (I, you, he, she) and articles (a, the).

The level just ahead of where your child is performing is called the zone of proximal development (ZPD); educators and therapists have found that targeting the ZPD is a highly effective way to stimulate progress in a child, whether with speech and language, reading, math, music, physical education, or any other area.

One more thing to remember: ... ... ... pause. ... ... ... Give your child time to respond. Do not subject your child to a "yack attack". Linguists have actually studied pause times between conversational turns in different languages and cultures, and adult speakers of American English are toward the short end on average. We tend expect our conversational partners to start talking less than half a second after we've finished, or we assume they're not going to answer and we start talking again. Your child will need a lot more time than this. If you slowly count to ten in your head while you wait for your child to respond, that should be almost enough time. It will feel interminable to you, but it really is not excessive from your child's perspective.

This sounds easy enough, but in real life, when my child is hurling his Elmo doll at my antique floor lamp, my impulse is probably going to be to produce a sentence like "Jason, if you break my lamp, so help me, I will put you in time-out until Rush Limbaugh buys a Prius," rather than "Give me Elmo" or "Don’t throw". It takes practice, so I recommend getting started sooner rather than later, preferably at a time when your treasured possessions are not in immediate jeopardy.

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