Baby Talk

By Mabel Hinton

One positive thing amidst the chaos this year is an influx of giggling babies. Still too innocent to know the world before them has been turned upside down, their sweetness reminds us of blissful normalcy. Scrolling down my Facebook feed shows back-to-back gender reveal celebrations and newborn photoshoots. “Wow!” I think. “What a time to be single.” Whereas I have enjoyed taking mid-day naps in place of going out to see friends, I know others have held tight to their new bundles of joy.

As we sit in awe of the little messy creations now running amuck in the house, we may forget just how brilliant they truly are. Most of the attention goes to their chubby little thighs, the big bows on their heads, the footsteps taken, and so on. What you may not know is that there is a lot of information processing going on in those tiny noggins. So as we speak to them in our baby voices (two-thirds of the time only asking questions–we are very inquisitive adults!) don’t forget to stop and think about all the gears turning behind the scenes.

Much of what we know about the roots of language comes from observing how children learn to comprehend and speak. For a long time, it was believed that language was simply learned. Just as we learn capitals, we learn the rules of speech. However, this game of memorization has been debunked. It has been argued that the ground rules of speech are innate–babies are born with an instinctive sense of how language works. For example, children easily pick up “the car is red” instead of “car red is the.”
After 5-weeks-old, infants show a clear preference for speech-like sounds, regardless of the language spoken. (All languages are mastered at about the same pace.) Children are just as much programmed to learn languages as they are programmed to walk–makes sense, right?

Within their first five years of life, children can effortlessly and simultaneously learn two completely different languages. Another reason to introduce your child to a second language early on…it is likely more difficult for you to understand than the baby! In fact, children all over the world learn languages in much the same way. They start with simple labels and advance to subject-verb structures. From “me” to “me want” then progressing to subject-verb emphatics “me want now!” You may think they are being rude, but this is a good sign of development. (Of course, just remind them to add “please”.)

Most parents tend to speak to infants in a simplified googoo-gaagaa sort of way. This is not an efficient method to teach a child the difference between past and present tense. But guess what? It does not matter! They still pick it up…and apply the bulletproof, logical rules of English to their own speech. That is why we get “I have already eated,” “She buyed me a doll,” “He goed away,” and so on. We all know these are incorrect, but to a child (and if you think about it…) they seem quite logical indeed.

There are some funny quirks about children that have yet to be explained. For example, almost all children learn to say “no” before “yes” and “in” before “on”. All children, everywhere, go through an “all gone!” phase. They have a funny fascination with the idea of “gone”… and no one is really sure why.

The Scientific American reported in January 1984 that children all begin babbling in a systematic way, making the same sounds around the same age of four to six months old. From Norway, China, England, and Arabia, the children behave and develop the same.

So as this new generation of 2020 babies start to crawl, speak, and challenge your sanity, do not forget to challenge them back. Yes, they are totally helpless little beings, but they were created with a desire to learn, grow, and discover. Give them something their tiny minds are hungry for and do not underestimate their brilliance. To all the new parents, we are wishing you restful nights, tidy houses, unstained clothes, dates nights out, and all the joys of watching your mini-me’s grow.

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