Ask The Expert: What's the best way to help my baby learn to talk?

An infant language expert tells Lisa Salmon why parents who talk to their baby often and demonstrate meanings of words will improve their child's language skills...

Babies typically learn more when they learn through multiple sensory systems
Lisa Salmon

Q: MY BABY is 12 months old and is just starting to speak. Is there anything I can do to help her learn to communicate better or more quickly?

A: Infant language expert Dr Robert Titzer, founder of Your Baby Can Learn says: "I suggest parents apply the following principles that have been shown in studies to enhance infants' language skills.

"Isolate words, then use them in sentences. This helps babies learn where words begin and end and helps them learn grammar. After you say one word, use it in descriptive sentences – ie, say 'Book. This is a big book. Books have pages!' while showing your baby a large book.

"Sort objects more by their shapes than by their colours to teach your baby the shape bias. The shape bias is the tendency to generalise information about an object by its shape – rather than its colour, material, size, or texture – when learning nouns. Babies initially focus more on colour, but have to learn that the shapes of objects typically provide more important information.

"For example, the shape of a cup lets you know you can drink from it. A cup can be any colour and made from many materials, but its shape provides more relevant category information. Once babies learn this shape bias – typically shortly after 24 months of age – they learn new words at a faster pace.

"Frequency effects in language learning are important, so increase the quantity of relevant language you speak to your baby. Talk as much as you can about what your baby is interested in.

"Clearly demonstrate the meanings of words as you say them. In many situations, there are numerous possible meanings when parents say words. For example, if someone says the word 'cup' while drinking from a cup, the baby must determine what is meant.

"The word could refer to the person, the action of drinking, the colour, size, or material of the cup, a part of the cup, the entire cup, or many other possibilities. It's very important to provide clear meanings to help babies learn words more efficiently. This also predicts the child's vocabulary three years later.

"Make language learning multi-sensory and interactive. Babies typically learn more when they learn through multiple sensory systems. Get in the habit of having conversations with your baby from early in infancy. Initially, you may need to answer your own questions for your baby. Your baby could answer questions by looking, pointing, or saying one-word answers. The number of 'conversational turns' – the times the conversation goes back and forth – between 18-24 months of age predict language scores 10 years later."

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