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Why you need to talk to your baby

Pregnant mother reading

Talk! Talk! Talk to your children! That is the message from studies into early language development, child development experts and early childhood educators across the nation. You don’t need any special skills. There are no special tricks. Children are going to make use of all the spoken language they receive.

Through the random noises of the outside world and the beating heart and growling stomach of their mothers, babies are distinguishing the muffled sound of their mother’s voice. From the third trimester children are programmed to develop speech and language. 

Many parents find themselves naturally falling into a pattern of talking to their unborn children and engaging them in one-sided conversations.

“Okay kiddo, well I’ve put off finishing your nursery long enough.

“Now if you could just remove your foot from my left rib cage I’ll promise to stop playing Ed Sheeran’s latest album on repeat and we can get this room done. Deal? Deal.”

And on it goes.

Parents are encouraged to read to their children from an early age to help develop language and literacy and assist brain development but there’s now some evidence that we can start even earlier and make a difference to our unborn children’s lives.

Professor Anne Cutler from the MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development (Western Sydney University and the Australian Research Council's Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language) points to a French team in the mid-90s that showed a foetus in the last month could hear and respond to the rhythm of a regularly read poem1.

The result suggests that third trimester babies become familiar with recurring sounds in their mother’s voice. Fetal heartrates decreased in response to rhymes their mothers had recited during the previous four weeks, but did not change in response to rhymes their mothers had never recited.

Reading to children has the main purpose of making reading a desirable activity for them. Otherwise we would just tell them stories; also a great thing to do, but reading specifically focuses on books and how much fun they are,” Professor Cutler says. 

“Obviously the concept of books and where the story comes from and indeed any meaning at all is unavailable in utero. So there is no way to expect a love of books to be fostered by reading to an as yet unborn child. That said, there might still be some positive effect. 

“So doing that might arm the mother with a way of potentially calming the baby after birth, who knows? Might be a bit boring for the mother, reading the same thing several times a day, but the payoff could be worth it!”

In 2017 Professor Cutler co-authored a study shedding further light on just how potent early experiences with language can be. The research found that children adopted early in life may completely forget their birth language, but decades later find themselves armed with a hidden advantage when they opt to learn that forgotten language.

Birth language memory

In research published in the journal Royal Society Open Science2, the study investigated the language learning abilities of Korean-born Dutch speakers and a control group of native Dutch-speakers to see whether the internationally adopted children were advantaged by birth language memory. Of the adoptee group, half had been adopted at 17 months or older (when talking would have begun), while half had been prelinguistic (under six months).

During a training period, the groups were asked to identify three Korean consonants, unknown in the Dutch language, and then try to reproduce them. The results were then rated by Korean listeners.

Adoptees pronunciation scores (attempts at articulating the correct sound) improved significantly more across the training period than the scores of control participants. In fact, even the youngest adoptee group showed evidence of this knowledge retention, suggesting that important and lasting abilities are being laid down even in the earliest months of life.

Professor Cutler says these results show that what has been retained about the birth language is abstract knowledge about language patterns.  

“There were two big results – the fact that the stored phonological knowledge that the adoptees had was there even for those who were adopted before six months of age; and the fact that the knowledge generalised across types of sounds and from perception to production, showing that it was knowledge about the phonology, i.e. abstract knowledge, not simply passive traces of what the infants had once actually heard,” Professor Cutler says.

 “We now know that abstract processing of language also starts in the early months. We should have expected it all along!”

Professor Iram Siraj has been an academic and researcher for about 30 years. She talks about why language development is the most important aspect of development in the early years.

Cognitive advantages of bilingualism

Another study published in Developmental Science3, suggests that even before they start talking, babies raised in bilingual households are getting a cognitive advantage. 

These babies are practising tasks related to executive function – skills associated with mental processes that help us plan, focus attention, remember instructions and handle multiple tasks - suggesting that bilingualism shapes not only language development, but also the construction of thought processes including remembering, problem solving and decision making more generally.

"One important result from our study is evidence from brain measures that children exposed to two languages show no decline in the development of their primary language," says Dr Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences in Seattle.

“Infants develop two languages without any problem as long as they are interacting with people who speak those two different languages.

"This research encourages parents to teach two languages to their own children because learning two languages has cognitive advantages."

A group of bilingual (English and Spanish) and a group of monolingual (English) 11-month-old infants participated in the study using magnetoencephalography imaging to monitor the babies' brain activity as they listened to syllables common to English or Spanish or exclusive to one or the other.

It found that the 11-month-old baby brain is learning whatever language or languages are present in the environment and is equally capable of learning two languages as it is of learning one language.

“If parents don’t speak a second language then they should seek playmates for their children who speak the second language, or seek a school that offers a play-based curriculum,” Dr Kuhl says. 

“Now that we’ve successfully demonstrated that children learn a second language easily, and that we’ve tested a successful program in early education centres, our next work is to scale up our new educational program so that it can be used all over the world.”

Books to read to your baby

Reading to your baby is a wonderful experience for you and for them. It doesn’t really matter what you read, but your child will enjoy the sound of your voice and books with rhymes and rhythms. Here are some suggestions from Goodstart Early Childhood Teacher Janis McDermott:

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish – Dr Seuss

In this hilarious exploration of opposites, colours, numbers and nonsense, Dr. Seuss paints a crazy world of singing Yings, boxing Goxes and seven-hump Wumps. 

Hop On Pop – Dr Seuss

House, Mouse! Hop, Pop! Cup, Pup! Learning about words that rhyme has never been more fun – simply change the first letter and the whole word changes.

Where Is The Green Sheep? – Mem Fox

Here is the blue sheep, and here is the red sheep. Here is the bath sheep, and here is the bed sheep. But where is the green sheep? 

Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes – Mem Fox

As everyone knows, nothing is sweeter than tiny baby fingers and chubby baby toes…

The Very Hungry Caterpillar – Eric Carle

Eric Carle's children's classic is the story of a very small and very hungry caterpillar who manages to nibble his way through the pages of this enchanting book.

We're Going on a Bear Hunt – Michael Rosen

Follow and join in the family's excitement as they wade through the grass, splash through the river and squelch through the mud in search of a bear.

How to stimulate language development

Newborns 

  • Verbally respond to your baby’s vocalisations.
  • Talk to your baby.
  • Use your baby’s name when talking to him/her.
  • Sing or hum.

Infants

  • Read books with rhymes and rhythms.
  • Point and name things that they see. 
  • Use an engaging tone when describing things.
  • Introduce a second language. 
  • Name and explain emotions they feel.
  • Look at and talk about photographs - who, what, when, where, why
  • Expand on single words your child uses e.g. "Da". "Dad. That is Dad's shoe."

Early Toddler

  • Use songs to communicate things like bedtime, time or bath time.
  • Make up songs that are fun or that reinforce positive behaviour.
  • Initiate conversations related to what they are doing or things they have done.
  • Ask questions and give time for response
  • Follow the child's lead and build on what they say e.g. "nana".  "Banana, would you like a banana?"

Late Toddler 

  • Gradually increase the complexity of grammar and vocabulary.
  • Provide children with expanded information and talk about how they feel.
  • Help them to follow simple commands.
  • Explain things happening in the world around them in age appropriate ways.
  • Use lots of different words with actions/gestures to show meaning to build vocabulary and comprehension.

Preschool/ Kindergarten 

  • Keep the conversations going.
  • Read interactively to engage their participation.  
  • After seeing a movie or television show talk about what happened.
  • Talk about their thoughts and feelings about a story.
  • Ask questions that will encourage elaboration of ideas.
  • Wait in conversation, give children time to formulate their response.
  • See the question ‘why’ as a gift.
  • Give your full attention to conversation.
  • Enjoy word play and inventing silly words that play on rhyme.

1 Fetal Reactions to Recurrent Maternal Speech. Anthony J. Decasper, Jean-Pierre Lecanuet, Marie-Claire Busnel, Carolyn Granier-Deferre,  Roselyne Maugeais. Infant Behavior and Development, 17, no. 2, (1994): 159. Published April 1994

2 Early development of abstract language knowledge: evidence from perception–production transfer of birth-language memory. Jiyoun Choi, Anne Cutler, Mirjam Broersma
R. Soc. open sci. 2017 4 160660; DOI: 10.1098/rsos.160660. Published 18 January 2017

3 Speech discrimination in 11-month-old bilingual and monolingual infants: a magnetoencephalography study. Ferjan Ramírez, N., Ramírez, R. R., Clarke, M., Taulu, S. and Kuhl, P. K. (2017),  Dev Sci, 20: n/a, e12427. doi:10.1111/desc.12427