Language acquisition is a dynamic, complex, and natural process that our children go through to learn how to communicate with others and build meaningful relationships. Like many other things in life, it’s not something that we question until something atypical occurs that raises concern. As parents and caregivers, we want to make sure that we optimize our interactions with our children in such a way that we help them bloom into their full potential. While this at times can seem as a subjective and daunting task, there are a few things that we can keep in mind to maximize our relationships and engagements to give us peace of mind.
While there are many different theories and beliefs about how children specifically acquire language, we all know for sure that there is an interaction of “nature” and “nurture.” Most children are naturally inclined to extract sounds, words, grammar, and eventually conversational language that allows them to manipulate and control the world around them. However, it’s our responsibility to nurture their natural inclinations to language acquisition with educated and careful techniques.
It’s important to remember that children have only been experiencing life and the world for a short period of time. As adults, it’s sometimes easy to forget that we’ve been here for a long time and that we have a lot to teach to the following generation. Sometimes it’s helpful to imagine placing yourself on a different planet, where you don’t speak the language, and where your environment is completely different than anything you’ve ever experienced before. This is what our children are going through. And they are sponges… for knowledge, information, communication.
Children explore their environment through play. It’s meaningful. It’s fun. It’s interactive. Through this natural and pleasant medium, we can teach children language and how to build relationships with others. However, it’s important to put yourself in your child’s shoes and to see through their eyes, and provide them with language that’s developmentally appropriate in order for them to learn how to pair symbolic language with concrete things that are occurring in their environment.
While we’re engaging in play with our children, it’s important to be mindful of what their attention is focused on. It’s very common that we have our own idea of what the direction and dialogue of the play should be; however, it’s meaningless if it isn’t in line with what our children have in mind. For example, if we’re playing with a train set, and the child is focused on pushing “Thomas the Train” back and forth but we’re talking about how “Percy the Small Engine” is happy because he gets to play and is going “up” and “down” and “around” the tracks – we’re missing the point. If our child’s attention is on pushing Thomas back and forth, our language is essentially meaningless if we’re talking about anything other than that.
In this particular situation, we can model nouns (i.e. Thomas, train, wheel), verbs (i.e. spinning, go, stop), and adjectives (i.e. fast, slow) – and make it meaningful by assuring that whatever words we’re producing are directly correlated with what’s happening. In a way, we’re just narrating for our children. And as long as their intentions and observations of their environment are aligned with the language that we’re providing them with – they will learn it. And eventually, we help them progress by expanding on their play and the language models we provide them. We show them that the “Thomas the Train” can go “under the bridge” and “over the bridge”, and can say “hello” to “Percy the Small Engine,” and request “help” when Thomas is “stuck” because the “tracks are broken” and “need to be fixed.” However, we need to make sure that our children’s attention is also focused on and interested in our expansion of their play in order for the language to be meaningful and learnable.
All in all, it’s important to know where our children are developmentally (i.e. single words versus three-word utterances versus conversational speech), and to dedicate some time each day to engage in play using language that is directly correlated with where they are developmentally, and to push the bar using language that’s just above their current threshold. This is how we can teach and challenge our children to learn language and interact with us in a meaningful and fun way.
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