Isn’t it frustrating when your little one can repeat the words you model to them but never seem to say them on their own, or when you hear your little one use a new word, only to never hear it again? Or embarrassing when they see a stranger and call him “daddy?” While all of these things are a natural part of the language acquisition process, they nonetheless can leave you wondering if your child will ever talk.
When you break it down, language learning is not such an easy process that you may think it to be. Even when you point out objects in the environment and label them, there is so much that your child has to process to fully capture the meaning of the word.
For example, let’s say that you are on a walk, and you point out a bird and say, “Look at the bird flying!” While your child is able to gain clues about what you are talking about based on the fact that they too are seeing what you are seeing as you describe it, they still have to decipher what “bird” is and what “flying” is. There is a lot to understand, just to learn a new word.
The good news is that there are a few things that you can do to help your little one to acquire new words and help them stick!
1. Follow Your Child’s Lead.
When we are doing things that interest us, we tend to focus and enjoy ourselves which creates a prime opportunity for learning. For example, if you are an avid gardener, you are more likely to enjoy a training video about the topic of gardening and as such are likely to implement some of the tips you learned. The same is true with our kiddos. When they are engaged in activities they love, they are likely to engage with you for longer periods of time, which creates more language modeling opportunities.
You can follow your child’s lead by sitting back and observing what it is that they are interested in. Then, you can join in the play or activity by imitating what they are doing and talking about it. When you use the strategy of parallel talking by describing what your child is doing, you are helping to build understanding as well as the appropriate words that they can later use when they are ready.
2. Repeat, Repeat & Repeat More.
When children are beginning to acquire spoken language, they need to hear words many times in many different contexts. For example, when teaching the word “up” you can model the word when blowing the bubbles “up”, when picking your child “up”, and when walking “up” the stairs. Each of these examples provides your little one more information as to what the word means. The idea is to expose your child to
many different examples of the target word to build their understanding.
3. Make New Words Stand Out.
To help build understanding, you can add more information to help words stand out. You can stress new words by placing them at the end of the sentence. For example, “Look at the bubbles going up!” You can highlight new words by placing emphasis on them by pausing before you say them and saying them with more stress. You can also add gestures to the word that you are modeling. For example, you can point “up” while saying, “up.” All of these strategies will help your child to understand the meaning of the word which will increase their use of the word.
4. Expand on What Your Child Says.
When children say a single word, we often model the word back by saying something such as, “You’re right, that is a dog!” And while that is a perfect response in that it reinforces what your child said, it does not build language. So, in addition to acknowledging what your little one says by repeating back what they said, you can also expand on what they said by adding another word. For example, after your child says, “dog” you can say, “You’re right, that is a dog, it is a big dog!”
5. Talk About Things That Build Understanding.
When your little one is not talking yet, or just beginning to speak it is important to model language to build their understanding of words so that they can use those words when they are ready. One way to do this is to add language to the experiences that you and your child do together by describing what it is that you are doing in that moment. This can include longer descriptions and explanations. For example, if your child indicates that they want crackers, you can model, “You are hungry, so you want a snack. You want to eat some crackers.” This helps your child not only learn the label of crackers, but also helps to build understanding of physical states (e.g., hungry) and action words such as, “eat.” The idea is to use longer explanations when building understanding and shorter phrases when we want our children to imitate us.
Just because our little one imitates the words that they hear us say, or says a word once, does not mean that they have learned the word. It is only when we hear them say a new word several times and across activities can we assume that they have truly learned the word. By modeling language throughout the day, during preferred activities, and making new words stand out by using the strategies above, you will be well on your way to helping those new words “stick” as your child continues to develop his or her vocabulary.