For many parents, it’s an important milestone: your baby’s first words. But the development of language goes much further than the simple ‘mother’ or ‘father’. How do children learn to communicate and how can you give them a hand? We ask Anika van der Klis, researcher at Utrecht University.By Samuel Bom
Most children learn languages at their own pace, says linguist Anika van der Klis. “There are many differences in the area of language development among children. We are investigating what causes this, especially in the first year of life. There are different aspects that come into play. Children grow up in different cultures, different family compositions and, among other things, different language environments. all have an effect on a child’s language development.”
Together with Professor René Kager and Dr. Frans Adriaans investigates the influence of Van der Klis’s parents in the first year of life. “A lot of research shows how important verbal interaction is for children learning to speak, but we also look at non-verbal communication.”
This is an important question, because according to Van der Klis, a child’s language development begins long before the first words: “A child can already understand what something means, but it takes a while before he uses the language himself.” Like adults learning a foreign language, children can therefore understand what is being said before they can participate themselves.
Zero or twenty words
As a parent, it is important to remember that not all children start talking at the same time. So if it takes a little longer than you expect, don’t worry right away. “There are always differences between children, but they may well fall within the normal developmental margin.”
According to Van der Klis, this makes it difficult to recognize the early stages of a language delay. “Around the first year of life, there are enough children who do not yet say a word. And there are children who already speak ten or twenty words. The difference sometimes only gets bigger.”
As a parent, it’s easy to worry about your child. Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to help your little one’s language development.
It is important to talk and respond a lot, even if your child is not responding yet.
This is not the babble
Because children can understand words and sentences before they can use them themselves, you want your child to receive as much language as possible. “A lot of talk, communication and response is important, even if your child does not respond yet. A child has other ways of seeking contact. Think of crying and laughing at the beginning. And during the first year of life, the first gestures appear quickly. and sounds that increasingly resemble syllables.”
It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s precisely these things that you can react to as a parent. “If a child points to something and the parent names it, it’s a good supply of language. The child shows that he is interested in the object by pointing to it. If you then name this object as a parent, there is a good link between language and meaning.” It might sound like babbling, but your baby is actually working on his vocabulary.
Mengen. Ridder. Kruispunt. Zomaar wat woorden die je kind van 6 moet kunnen. Lees hoe dat zit op Ouders van Nu.
Make listening fun
Another thing that helps is to use your “baby voice”. In other words, a high voice and a lot of variation in pitch. In science, this is called ‘child-centred speech’. “People don’t consciously think about it, it just happens. You see the same thing happen with body language. Parents make their gestures a little bigger, and everything becomes a little more weighty.” According to Van der Klis, this is good for the children: “A child likes to listen to it, and the more interested he is, the more he learns from what you say.”
Research shows that talking to your child leads to a larger vocabulary. But children don’t just learn language – they actually learn to communicate, and not all communication is verbal.
“We are investigating in Utrecht what the influence is of parents’ gestures, facial expressions and other body language during early interactions. We expected that parents who react a lot verbally to their child at the same time give a lot of non-verbal reactions, but this is not the case . parents can sometimes use a little body language, or vice versa. This surprised us. Many verbal language inputs have a positive effect on language development, and now we are looking at whether the non-verbal responses also matter. It It may well be that gestures also contributes to language development.”