Encouraging Language Skills

Answers and info from Encouraging Language Skills, a Spright workshop held Sept. 13, 2016, with Julie Fogt, SLP

Hi, Julie!

A brief bit about me: I currently work with preschool-4th grade children at an elementary school in Ohio. Additionally, I also provide in-home speech and language services to families with children ages birth-three. I have 3 years of experience working in a pediatric outpatient setting (2009-2012) and am currently starting my 4th year in the schools. I have a 9-month-old daughter at home so I am figuring out the first time mom thing as well!

What are the benefits to doing baby sign language? I feel like it’s become a trendy thing, but I’m not clear on the benefits.

Simply put, baby sign can give your child an outlet for communication.

Often times, babies and toddlers get frustrated if they want to communicate something but do not know how. Baby sign gives them a way to do this. A lot of parents get nervous because they think if their child signs that they will be later to talk, and the research actually shows the opposite is true. Starting with a few simple signs like "eat,” "drink,” "all done,” "more,” etc. can be really helpful in easing frustration for both parent and baby. It may take a while and your baby's signs may not be exact, but you should start to see them using the signs for communication. Then, they will drop them on their own as they gain more words and the need for signs isn't as strong.

I have a 4.5 month old. When is best to teach sign language?

It is not too early to start! I personally started around 6 months when my daughter started eating solid food and used meal time as a jumping-off point.

You could start now with the sign for "milk" when you nurse or give a bottle. You could also use "all done" during diaper changes. Even a simple sign of "yes" or "no" could be good. If you're already introducing solids, you could start using "more,” "eat,” "drink,” "all done,” etc.

I wouldn't expect any response right away. My daughter is just starting to sign back to me. You just want to make sure that if you're going to use sign, that you use it consistently so they get the idea.

I've heard that pointing is a milestone along the way to developing language. True? Are there other nonverbal signs to look for?

Pointing is definitely a nonverbal means of communicating! Since babies are not born verbal, they communicate nonverbally most of the time. Your baby may be pointing to get your attention, show you something they see, something they want, etc. Other nonverbal means of communication are clapping to show excitement or that they want more of something, tugging on arms and legs to get your attention, smiling, reaching out for you.

There are also nonverbal cues that babies use to indicate disengagement. These may be things like pressing lips together to indicate they don't want more food or drink, crawling away, shaking head, pushing away, etc. Some nonverbal communication is very clear and other nonverbal communication may be more subtle.

Babies also use their tone of voice as a means of communication. So while it may just sound like "babble", you can often tell whether you child is happy, sad or mad just through their tone of voice.

Taking time to acknowledge these cues is important and helps your baby to learn that their communication- whether verbal or nonverbal has intent and they are understood and valued.

My 7mo hasn't yet grasped using vowels (baba etc), and it makes me anxious! I talk and read to him a lot but is there anything more I can do?

Are you hearing you any sounds at this time? Even if you're not hearing true babbling at this time, you should be hearing coos and goos, which sound a lot like "oooh", "ahhs" and other vowel type sounds. These types of sounds will lead into more babbling from your child. If your child has had a lot of ear infections you may notice that they may be a little slower to develop sounds and language.

Keep doing what you are doing, because it sounds like you are doing exactly what you need to do. You could also imitate the sounds he does make to see if he would engage in any back and forth "talking" with you.

Our son gets both English and Spanish at home and with his nanny. Although at home, he probably gets 75% of the day in English. 100% of his day with the nanny is in Spanish but he's only with her 1 day a week. Just concerned that this way of introducing another language could delay verbal communication. He seems to understand both but isn't saying much other than babble. He used to say mama & dada but seemed to stop doing that. Is this a speech regression?

If your child has been hearing and learning both languages from birth or early infancy, it shouldn't be a problem. Children all over the world learn more than one language without developing speech or language problems. Bilingual children develop language skills just as other children do.

The American Speech Hearing and Language Association list the following information regarding dual language learners: Like other children, most bilingual children speak their first words by the time they are 1 year old (e.g., "mama" or "dada"). By age 2, most bilingual children can use two-word phrases (e.g., "my ball" or "no juice"). These are the same language developmental milestones seen in children who learn only one language.

From time to time, children may mix grammar rules, or they might use words from both languages in the same sentence. This is a normal part of bilingual language development. When a second language is introduced, some children may not talk much for a while. This "silent period" can sometimes last several months. Again, this is normal and will go away.

A plateau in language development could be due to learning more motor skills. Sometimes as children learn to walk or crawl or other motor activities, their language plateaus until that skill is mastered.

What constitutes an actual "first word," instead of just a sound or a random noise? My 11-month-old daughter will say things that sound like "cat" and sometimes she says them to the cat, but sometimes she says them when the cat is nowhere to be found.

Most of the time, at least from an English perspective, a baby's first word will be a noun. Often times, babies will overgeneralize at first- so every animal with four legs will be "cat" and then every cat will be "cat" and eventually just your cat will be whatever your cat’s name is.

I would pay attention when you hear her use the word when the cat is not around- is she using the word with rising intonation at the end? Perhaps then she is asking where the cat is or is calling the cat to come to her!

My daughter (16 mos.) clearly understands a lot, but has yet to really say anything. She says “mama” and “dada” but not always (most of the time?) when speaking to us. We read a lot, name everything, and narrate what we’re doing, but is there anything else we can do to encourage her verbal skills?

What you are doing so far is really great! Exposing children to a variety of vocabulary is so important! A couple of other things that come to mind …

There are a couple of places where your pediatrician should be able to guide you. If your child has a history of ear infections, I might ask your pediatrician at your next visit about tubes if it hasn't been brought up already. I would also ask your pediatrician about any Early Intervention services. Most states have services for ages birth-three and they are free for your family. They could come in and do an evaluation to see if speech and language services are needed for your child.

Also, babies tend to only be able to focus on one thing at a time so if your daughter is learning to walk or just mastered learning to walk or some other new skill you might see their language skills plateau until they have mastered that particular skill.

Some final thoughts …

It sounds like you all are doing exactly what you should be with your baby. Continue talking to them! Label things in their environment, talk to them throughout the day and tell them what you're doing. If you're at the grocery store talk to them about what you're getting and what you're going to cook. Describe what other people are doing. Acknowledge that they've expressed something either through vocalizations or facial expression ("oh I see your smile, you're telling me that you're happy!").

Also, babies learn so much through play, so make sure they have lots of opportunities to explore their environment. Follow their lead when they are crawling, walking, or rolling around and see what new opportunities it brings for language learning