Category Archives: Linguistic

The influence of attention and caregiver-input on language development

Ask any psychologist what is one of the very first things they learn at school and, undoubtedly, the answer will always be genes vs. environment. We already know that environment and context play a huge role in our children’s development; today we’ll explore just how big a role it plays in language acquisition.

By environment, in this article, we’ll include specifically attentional abilities, a.k.a the ability your baby has to hold his or her attention to certain stimuli, and the quality of the input he or she is receiving (complexity and variability of the interactions).

To understand how attentional abilities play a role, we must understand the evolution of mother-baby interactions during the first year of life (dads, this includes you too!). Up until your baby is 5 months old, interactions are considered as “dyadic”; meaning face-to-face, one-on-one (only 2 elements are participating). As your baby grows older, these interactions turn “triadic” including objects (cue in all the cute, stuffy toys). What this means is that now these toys become an object of focus for verbal and attentional exchanges with your baby. This seemingly inconsequential transition is huge for language acquisition. It’s considered a turning point since your baby can start to relate words and sounds to specific objects and actions.

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Top 5 Traveling Tips

Traveling with our tiny friends can seem daunting –but proper preparation will make for a smooth ride! Whether it’s a long road trip, a train ride, or even a flight –these tricks and tips have you covered!

  1. Limit Screens

I know it is so much easier to keep your little one occupied with a tablet or device. However, screens really do promote self-direction and hyper-focused attention. That is, your child may direct all of his/her attention onto the tablet and forget that the rest of the world exists. We often also see a change in behavior following a significant amount of screen time. It is suggested that for children 2-5 years of age screen time should be limited to a maximum of 1 hour per day. (Okay, PSA on screen time complete!)

  1. Pack The Right Entertainment

I am all about packing smart, speechy activities to keep your tiny friend endlessly entertained! First, the Melissa and Doug Memory Travel Game comes with an easy to hold flip board and 7 game cards to switch out –it is also interactive if you are travelling with 2 or more friends. Next, I love the Crayola Travel Kit –coloring is a calming and grounding experience. You can make it interactive and play Pictionary or send letters back and forth to each other. Lastly, there are tons of Reusable Sticker Books that are great for travel since you can’t ruin the stickers and you can play over and over again. You’ll want to pack games without pieces that may get lost, quiet options since repetitive noises are the pits, and most importantly activities that motivate your little one.
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Making Spring Cleaning Speechy

New research suggests that children who take part in household cleaning are more empathetic, make better connections, and are more willing to help others! Most little ones actually love to clean, especially if they have their very own tools. Plus, there’s an added bonus! It is super simple and fun to make cleaning speechy. It is the perfect opportunity to allow your child to follow directions, identify objects, sort, find items you describe, and so much more! Since spring is finally here, let’s chat about some ways that you can involve your toddler in the spring cleaning!

  1. Follow the Cleaner

Have you ever noticed that your toddler loves to wipe up spills or sweep up a mess? This is actually a wonderful developmental milestone that we see as early as 18-months. Kids love to participate in daily routines –think: toddler see, toddler do! It’s best to set up your little one with his or her own tools and assign a job. Maybe they get to wipe the kitchen table with their special sponge and spray bottle (*with kid-safe cleaning solution of course). You can also take turns sweeping –mommy can sweep with the big broom and your tiny friend can use his or her own mini broom. You can make it even speechier by providing a challenge! You can sweep from the rug to the door; sweep to the left; spray 3 times and then wipe; and so on!

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How to Help Your Little One Love Story Time

We all have the same picture-perfect image of reading to our tiny friends. We are sitting cuddled up with a beautifully drawn story that’s chalk-full of life lessons and our children are hanging on to every word. The reality of story time is not always so movie-esque. Perhaps your little one does not like to sit still for a story; maybe they want to hold the book and only turn the pages; or your child may feel that books are for coloring and/or ripping rather than reading. It’s okay; we can make it better! Here are my tips to help your child love story time.

  1. Start Small

This first header has a double meaning. First, you can start reading to your baby right away. Initiating story time with your newborn is a great way to get yourself into a reading routine. Additionally, their movement is limited and their focus is only on you! Secondly, start by reading short & simple books. My favorite books to start with are those that have one picture per page (and are preferably touch & feel). Starting with one picture per page allows your baby to focus on one concept at a time. You may open the book and say, “dog”, point to the picture, pet the dog’s fur and elaborate with a “woof”. Your baby will be completely tuned in to the picture, the word dog and the sound “woof”. It is important to keep your language simple in this stage because we want to match the baby’s level. Using 1-2 words or sounds per page when you start is plenty. This stage is all about teaching.

  1. Buy Built-Ins

Books with built-in features are your best friends! Look for books that have touch & feel, Velcro patches, felt flaps, moving pieces, pop-ups or peek-a-boos. These books have done a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of engaging your child. Motivation during story time is important because it promotes joint attention, which is necessary for learning. Joint attention occurs when your child is focused on the task (i.e. the book) and you. It is as simple as your baby looking at the book, then looking at you, and then back at the book. Interactive books do a ton of the work in keeping your child engaged in the task. I also love that they are full of directions for kids to follow (e.g. “Find the…” “Look under the…” “Put on the…”). They are also wonderful for promoting expressive language. Since your tiny friend will be so very engaged and demonstrating joint attention, it is way more likely that you will hear new sounds and words!

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Pragmatics: teaching social communication skills

Sometimes forget to talk about a major component to language: pragmatics or the rules for using language in different situations and with different people. Also known as social communication, pragmatics cover facial expressions, gestures, what to say and when to say it. Knowing and following these rules makes it easier for everyone to communicate.

There are three major social communication skills you can teach your little one:
1. Using language for different reasons: whether you’re informing, requesting or demanding, it implies a different way of communicating.
2. Changing language for the listener or because of the situation: talking differently to a child than to an adult, skipping details when someone already knows what you’re talking about, talking differently depending on the place you’re at.
3. Following rules for conversations: these include taking turns to speak, staying on topic, knowing how close to stand to someone while talking, etc.

It’s totally normal and even expected for children to break some of these rules while they are still learning them. Some kids can’t filter what they say –so if you want an honest answer about your outfit, ask your little one! Although your toddler’s lack of social communication skills can sometimes be uncomfortable or embarrassing for you, remember that it’s a learning process and simply find a time to point out why what she said was improper and what she could have said instead.

On the other hand, if your daughter is having trouble with conversational skills, make sure to give her a lot of chances to practice. Before you begin a conversation, say something about the topic you want to talk about so that she knows what you’re interested in discussing. This might help her stay on topic. Ask questions about it so that she carries on with the conversation. You can also teach her about nonverbal communication and how sometimes facial expressions can tell us more about what someone is trying to say. Look at pictures of faces with different expressions and have your little one try to identify what the person might be feeling.

Language milestones: answering simple questions

You might be wondering when will your little one begin to verbally answer to your questions. It’s not an easy task! It requires your son to understand what you’re asking, process the question, formulate an answer and then verbally communicate it. It all depends on what questions you’re asking, so it’s a good idea to know what kind of questions you should ask and expect an answer to, depending on your child’s age.

At one or two years of age, children use a lot of gestures to communicate. For example, a child might answer a simple “where” question like “where’s the cat?” by pointing in its direction. He might also answer yes/no questions with a head nod or shake. As for asking questions themselves, one or two-year-olds begin to use pitch to communicate that they’re asking something (the pitch goes up at the end). Two and three-year-olds verbally answer and understand simple “where”, “what” and “who” questions and begin to ask questions related to their wants and needs. For example, your little one might ask “where mommy?”. By three or four, children may begin to answer more complex questions like “when”, “why” and “how”, and in turn, he might use them to formulate questions himself.

To get your son to practice answering questions, ask him many questions that are similar, but change the first word. For example, you might ask:
“What did you play with?”
“Where did you play?”
“Who did you play with?”
“When did you play?”
“How did you play?”
“Why did you play?”

That way, you’ll find out what your little one really understands. If he answers something incorrectly, you can explain and then work on those specific questions later on.

Language milestones: speak using plurals

When we use the plural form of a noun, we indicate that we’re talking about more than one person or object. Most of the time, the plural form of a noun is produced by simply adding “s” at the end of the word. This is referred to as the “regular plural”. Most children master the use of the regular plural between 27 and 36 months of age. When first beginning to use plurals, most toddlers use it on select, frequently used words. With time, they extend that rule to other nouns. This may lead to incorrect use of the regular plural, like saying “foots” instead of “feet”.

For a long time, researchers have been interested in how children extend the rules of grammar to new words. In 1958, psychologist Jean Berko Gleason developed the now famous Wug Test. In it, children were shown a sketch of a flame-shaped bird and were told that it was a “wug”. Then, they were shown another “wug” and told “Now there is another one. There are two of them. There are two ___”. The children responded, like you and I would, “wugs”. This study clearly showed that children don’t memorize the plural form of certain words, instead they learn and apply grammatical rules. They couldn’t have memorized the word “wugs” because they had never heard it before!

Help your daughter learn to use the plural form of nouns by practicing at home! Begin with simple two-word phrases. You can show her one thing, like an apple and say “one apple.” Then show her another apple and say “two apples”. Repeat this a couple of times and let her give it a try. Do the same with other objects, emphasizing the “s” at the end of the word so she can hear it. You can also point out the plurals that appear in a story during reading time. Ask your little one “What are those?” and see if she answers using the plural form of the word. If she doesn’t, simply say it yourself and explain why we use the plural form of the word.

Language milestones: learning to use pronouns

Pronouns are words used instead of specific nouns. They give us information about the gender or number of people or objects being referred to. There are different types of pronouns. Subjective pronouns like I, you, he, she, it, we and they, are used as the subject of a sentence. For example, “We went to the park”. On the other hand, objective pronouns like me, you, him, her, us and them, are used as objects in sentences. For example, “The baby liked him”. Normally, kids learn to use subjective pronouns before objective ones and by the time they turn three, they’re using them in sentences.

Pronouns may seem like simple words, but they actually are pretty complex concepts to grasp because they mark a difference between the speaker and the others. Also, the terms change depending on who is using them! With time your son will practice and learn every rule, until it comes naturally. For now, keep in mind that it is totally normal for him to use pronouns incorrectly sometimes, especially if he is using them with verbs and other nouns or referring to himself.

If you’d like to help your little one learn to use pronouns properly, the first thing you should do is consciously use them yourself when you talk! For example, instead of saying “Mommy is very proud!” say “I am very proud!”. Make sure he’s getting a lot of exposure to pronouns. To get him to practice, have him make up sentences with subjective pronouns (sentences that start with he, she, they or it). Do this while reading a story and have your little one describe what the characters are doing. For example, “He is jumping on the bed”.

The process of learning to use pronouns correctly can be a bit challenging for some kids. Just make sure your son gets a lot of practice and with time he’ll get the hang of it.

Tips for having meaningful conversations with your child

You talk to your daughter every day, some would say all day! But how much of that talk makes up meaningful conversations? A conversation is a back and forth exchange between two or more people. Your little one says something and first you listen. Then, you respond while she listens. You give her time to respond and so on and so forth in a serve and return pattern. Conversations can be about anything at all –from her favorite character to your plans for the weekend. The important thing is to talk with your daughter, and not just at her.

Having meaningful conversations with your child will build her confidence and self-esteem because she’ll learn that you care about her and are interested in her thoughts and feelings. She’ll also learn to become an effective communicator while building her vocabulary and language skills. Here are a few tips to get those conversations going:

• Find time to talk to your daughter without any distractions around (cellphone included!). Give her your undivided attention.
• If you are in the middle of something and your little one wants your attention, try and stop what you’re doing to listen. A few minutes of your full attention will go a long way.
• Be patient. Give her time to respond. A quiet pause will give her time to organize her thoughts and get back to you.
• Have a special time during the day when you talk in a meaningful way and are conscious about it. Talking about your day can become a part of your bedtime routine, for example.
• Keep an eye on your child’s body language and facial expressions to really comprehend what she’s trying to say.
• Respect her thoughts and feelings. Regardless if you think she is right or wrong, listen and respond letting her know you hear her.
• Ask open-ended questions that require more than a simple yes or no answer, and do the same with your responses, practice saying more than that yourself!

Boys’ and girls’ brains process language differently

It’s not uncommon to hear that, usually, girls have superior linguistic skills than boys, and for some time it wasn’t clear why or how their brains differed. In 2008, researchers were able to study brain activity in girls and boys and the results showed that the brain areas associated with language work harder in girls during language tasks because, in fact, they rely on different parts of the brain to complete these tasks.

This study, conducted by researchers from Northwestern University, provided clear biological evidence of the differences in language processing between girls and boys. Researchers measured brain activity in 31 boys and 31 girls between the ages of 9 to 15, while they performed language tasks like spelling and writing. Sometimes, the tasks were visually presented and the children had to read the words, and sometimes the cues were auditory. The found that girls’ language areas of the brain were significantly more active than boys’. Meanwhile, in the boys’ brains they found that their visual and auditory cortex were doing most of the work. Their findings suggest that language processing is more sensory based for boys, and more abstract for girls.

Other studies point out that girls’ brains have sort of a “head start” on language development because their left hemisphere (where most people’s language center lies) develops before the right. For boys though, it’s reversed, their right hemisphere develops first. Girls talk earlier than boys, have larger vocabularies when they reach preschool and they use more complex sentences. Once they reach school age, girls are normally one to one-and-a-half years ahead of boys in reading and writing skills. The list of differences goes on and on. Keep in mind that these studies focus on group averages, and what could be true for that group might not be true for every individual.

With this in mind, you could pay special attention to fostering your son’s language skills early on. Experiences play a huge role on how the brain is wired, especially in the first years of life. Take a look at other articles about this topic to get ideas on how to encourage language development at home.