Parents are often their own worst critics when it comes to imparting knowledge to their children. Although helping with science fairs or homework assignments may come later on, the pressure comes early, as their infant starts to babble in increasingly word-like vocalizations. It’s easy to assume that children who can’t yet form a word are unable to understand what their parents are saying to them. But spend just a few minutes with an infant, and you quickly realize how rapidly the gears are turning. And new research by me and my colleagues Michael Goldstein and Jennifer Schwade at Cornell University, suggests these interactions are more sophisticated than we once thought.
Parents’ responses to their baby’s babbling take on new significance at the age of about six months, when babies’ vocalizations start to mature. Around this age, babies become incredibly receptive to what they hear immediately after they babble. In fact, previous work from the B.A.B.Y. Lab at Cornell University suggests that if infants receive a response to their initial vocalization, they’re far more likely to vocalize again. Observations of mother-infant conversations have found that within 10 minutes of this type of exchange, children can be taught new vocalizations. For example, they can be taught to shift their consonant-vowel construction of “dada” into vowel-consonant “ada.” But what’s truly incredible about these exchanges is the level of influence babies have as actual conversation partners.
In our most recent research, we specifically examined mothers’ responses to nine-month-old infants and found that babies help lead the conversation. Mothers are more responsive to vocalizations they interpret as meaningful—a mature-sounding vocalization, or a vocalization directed at an object. When a mother hears her child say “ba” while holding or pointing at a ball, she will most likely respond with, “yes, that’s right: ball!” Coincidentally, babies are also highly receptive to their mother’s response to an object-directed vocalization. So, when children make one of these object-directed vocalizations, they’re structuring the interaction with their parent in a way that facilitates their learning of the object’s name.
For parents, this knowledge might come as a welcome relief: yes, your children are learning when you name objects for them. Research like ours is increasingly demonstrating the importance of social feedback in language development. With this knowledge comes the opportunity to be a more effective communication partner for your growing child. Our research shows that mothers are already responsive to infants’ more mature vocalizations, so parents can rest easily, knowing they are helping their child develop language skills.
To maximize these opportunities, parents should fully engage when their child is communicating with them. The timing and the content of the response are two aspects of parental responding that predict learning. Responding promptly will catch children when they’re most receptive. Shared attention to the object they’re babbling at teaches children the name of that object more than hearing the correct name on its own. Describing objects to them—“the ball is red”—may offer children additional understanding.
Children demonstrate progress in language development on slightly different time frames. It can be frustrating for parents if they perceive a delay in their child’s development, particularly if they compare their child to others. The research method we employed here can be instrumental in helping parents as well as practitioners gain greater understanding of language development and speech patterns of children, especially for those with developmental disabilities such as autism or Down syndrome. Additional research may yield more effective techniques to help parents communicate better with their children and thus improve their quality of life.