Children’s talk inspires strong feelings in their parents, whether they think children should speak only when spoken to or they stop in their tracks every time their child makes a sound. Parents worry whether their children are talking too much or not enough, whether their children are polite listeners or chronic interrupters, whether they’re speaking too loudly or too softly or saying please or thank you or paying attention. Children’s talk is important. It gives them the opportunity to test their understanding of new concepts. It connects them to other people. It expresses their joy and their confusion. It helps get needs met and allows them to help others. Language rich environments are critical to children’s intellectual, academic and social development. Some key qualities distinguish high quality language rich environments from those which are just a lot of talk.
Quality modeling: Children become like the things they love… and children love their parents. Use the language you want your child to use. Avoid babytalk or sing-song language with your child. Be aware that your child is learning from your language even when he or she is not talking to you. Passive observation of language influences children’s language development, so whether you’re talking to your child or just talking in earshot, model the kind of interactions in which you hope your child will engage. Likewise, children internalize the language they’re exposed to, not necessarily the language they’re forced to mimic. So, instead of demanding that your child use particular language, model it on your own. Rather than insisting, “Tell Mr. Jones ‘thank you,’” for example, be certain that you are modeling consistently the polite courtesies you want your child to mirror. The more children hear quality language, the more opportunity they have to adopt it as their own.
Intentional language: Your language should propel your child’s language development. Toward that end, think about the way you explain ideas and vary the kinds of language you demonstrate. Children need language both to describe the world as it is: language that labels, describes, illustrates and details new concepts and ideas. Children also need language to describe the world that might be: language that hypothesizes, analyzes, reasons and predicts in abstract ways. And while your child may need you to slow down your language, he doesn’t need you to dumb it down. Use proper grammar and vocabulary. Find time to engage in focused, attentive conversation with your child. You may find he or she has some very interesting things to say.
Responsiveness: Often, we focus on the bits of children’s language which are evolving instead of the message they’re trying to convey. Rather than correcting your child’s language, respond it as though it is already grammatically correct. If your child says, “I felled down,” answer her with, “I’m sorry! Do you need help?” rather than correcting the misused verb. Correcting children’s grammar doesn’t necessarily help them speak correctly, but it does interfere with the relational quality of language. Remember, first and foremost, language is intended to communicate a message. Don’t let your child’s developing language skills interfere with his or her desire to connect with you.
Most of all, treat your child’s talk as you would treat a friend’s. Listen attentively and respond to what you’ve actually heard. Engage politely and avoid correcting or ridiculing. Presume understanding instead of expecting confusion. If you want to improve the way your child speaks to you and to others, focus first on how you do. You’ll not only strengthen their language, you’ll find your relationship strengthened as well.