The first years of life are a critical period for brain development. At this time, the brain is at its most malleable, which presents a time of both great opportunity and vulnerability for a baby. Social interactions and parental engagement during this period are essential for a child’s language development. That’s why parents need to understand the vital role they play in their little one’s learning success.

What influences language development?

Babies start to learn about language even before they begin to speak. When they cry or babble, and receive a caring response from an adult, they are forming and strengthening neural connections related to communication and social skills. These interactions are known as “serve and return” interactions and are critical for development. Interactive relationships between parents and their kids are not only expected but are also essential to avoid developmental delays or a negative impact on their future well-being. The quality of the child’s environment and the availability of enriching experiences early on will be critical in determining the strength of their future brain architecture.

What science says about parental engagement

Anne Fernald, director of the Center for Infant Studies at Stanford University, is a leading researcher on this topic. The studies she has led have found that, although verbal abilities are influenced by genetic factors to some extent, early experiences are just as, or even more, important. In one of her studies about language development, she discovered that, by the time they entered school, 5-year-old children that lacked proper language stimulation fell more than two years behind their more stimulated peers on standardized language development tests. Fernald identified three main factors in parental engagement that adults should take into consideration to avoid this lag: the child’s access to directed speech, increased word quantity and quality (rich and varied), and the use of gestures from parents.

Parents need to remember that overheard conversations will not help their children’s language development. Parents need to speak directly to them (making eye contact) to enable vocabulary learning. 

As shown above, the best way to boost language development is for parents and caregivers to focus on verbal interactions. Try to talk to your little one as frequently as possible —the sooner you start, the better! Also, you can try to fit conversations into daily activities (whatever the activity may be, it can be explained out loud to your child!). Remember, by increasing verbal interactions and parental engagement, the potential to change the course of your little one’s vocabulary acquisition, language development, and future reading skills is very high!

If you want to get started on verbal interactions, here’s one of our activities that has ideas for just that! Take a look here: