Teaching Children Language

What are the things many parents seem to get wrong in developing the language skills of their children? Some personal observations.

If someone doesn’t know a single word, how do you teach them the first words and what they mean? You cannot use words to explain what a word means when they have no vocabulary. That is the challenge you face with children learning their first words.

Disclaimer: I am a software developer by trade and not a child psychologist or anything like that. So you have to take what I write with a grain of salt. However, I have always had a keen interest in observing humans. Perhaps that is because I studied artificial intelligence and machine learning at university and always had an interest in how the human mind works.

I am writing this in part because I cannot remember any of the books I read on parenting or any of the advice I ever got really spelled out the details of how you teach children language. A lot of people will just tell you “talk a lot to your kids.”

Sure, almost any method will likely let your child develop language eventually. But with the wrong approach, it may take much longer than necessary.

Don’t Use “I” and “You”

If you think about it, you will probably realize that concepts such as me and you are quite complex to convey to a complete beginner. If you refer to your child with “you” they can easily think that their name is “you.” This quickly gets confusing. Likewise if you refer to yourself as “I”, they make think you are called “I”. This can cause some rather confusing conversations.

Thus what I find helpful is to always refer to your child by name and yourself as “dad” or “mom”. Keep things consistent to avoid confusing your child.

Use Simple Sentences and Repeat Yourself

If you have ever learned a foreign language, you know that long complicated sentences are not your friend. You will also frequently miss what is being said. Many seem to have this idea that they should talk with proper grownup language to their children and, sure, at some point you should do that! I discuss complicated subjects like subatomic particles with my kids in elementary school at this point. But only because I know they can follow what I am saying. When their vocabulary is really small, you have to adapt your vocabulary.

Use simple short sentences and repeat yourself. Instead of saying something like “Hey, Timmy, do you want to eat some more rice pudding?” you need to simplify to: “Is Timmy hungry?”

Then point to the rice pudding and say “Rice pudding? Timmy eat rice pudding?” Keep it short and focus on the concepts you want to teach. Point to make clear what food is called “rice pudding”. Eating is the other key concept to learn, so don’t fill the sentence with a lot more words.

Then repeat this while looking at the child. Make sure he or she can see your mouth and has your attention. You have to gauge whether they are picking up on what you are saying or totally absent.

Use a Running Commentary to Actions

You can point to objects and say their name. Again, use short sentences. Maybe only the name of the thing and nothing else. But for more abstract things such as eating, sitting and giving, how do you convey that? The trick there is to act it out while saying what you do.

For example, you could eat rice pudding while your child sees it and say “Daddy eating rice pudding.” You could repeat with some different variations. Maybe only “Daddy eating.” To convey the generic nature of it you could have your partner do the same while she or you say, “Mommy eating. Mommy eating rice pudding.”

This is a habit that you can simply develop as you go about daily life. You get ready to go out, and when you put on your shoes you could say, “Daddy put on shoes.” When you go out the door, you could say, “Daddy open the door.”

Kids often hold onto things tight, spoons, forks, balls or whatever. It can be hard to make small kids understand that you want them to give up the object. You could have your child watch you and your wife. You could say “Mommy give ball” to your partner while she holds a ball and have her give it to you. You could use a variety of objects and take turns. Then you could put a ball in the hand of your son or daughter and ask, “Timmy give ball to Daddy.”

For kids, this will often be like a game and they will be somewhat thrilled to understand how to follow simple commands.

As you’ve noticed the sentences I demonstrated are not really grammatically correct. But that is fine. You are trying to teach a basic vocabulary initially. Once your child has some vocabulary, you can start using more complex sentences and complex grammar.

Learning Language Is Not Magic

Until I had children of my own, I thought of the process of how kids learned as almost magic but once you are part of it you realize that it is all based on small clear step-by-step advancements. I get the impression that many think language just sort of happens magically and you don’t have to do much about it. Just babble away and the kid will just pick it up.

But you need a certain deliberation with it. For most parents this actually comes quite naturally. You will often be inclined to use exaggerated pronunciation and simple language when talking to kids.

Does It Really Matter?

Kids often learn language at different speeds and catch up with each other and thus it may not matter that much how quickly they learn. I don’t think you should stress about this, but you should be ignoring it either. What I’ve seen with my own kids and many others is that kids can get really frustrated as they get older if they cannot communicate properly. What you may perceive as a behavioral problem can simply be down to your kid not being able to express himself or herself and getting frustrated.

It is Not a Competition

Parents want to be proud of their kids and often don’t like to admit that their kid has some challenges. But there is no such thing as a normal kid. Every kid is different and almost every kid has some challenges or hangups. The best way you can deal with that is to acknowledge that you don’t know everything and that it is good to seek advice. Talk with your good friends, your own parents, etc. Of course their advice may not always be sound but it is worth hearing it anyway and compare it with other advice and your own impressions and ideas.

If you say that your “Timmy” has an issue to your parents or friends, it doesn’t mean that you are not proud of “Timmy,” it just means you are taking his or her challenges serious and tackling the problem head on.

Some things take time to figure out and you have to be humble enough to accept that you will make mistakes. I have certainly made tons of mistakes. Mistakes don’t go away if you simply refuse to admit that you made them. What proves your mettle is your ability to admit mistakes, correct them and move on.

Correcting Children

Children will, of course, say stuff wrong all the time. Try to avoid pointing out that they say things wrong. Just repeat the word they just said in a sentence emphasized and correctly. If Timmy says, “Timmy eata pluddy,” then you may respond with, “Ah, Timmy eat pudding.”

Of course sometimes I point out something that is said wrong if it has been going on for a while. But generally you want to avoid making kids insecure about how they talk.

Ditch the iPad and TV and Read a Book Instead

The iPad is an amazing tool and I have been a professional developer making iPad apps in the past, so it is not like I have phobia against technology. Yet I cannot stress enough how bad iPad can be for child development. The iPad with its highly interactive nature can almost be like crack cocaine to a kid. They get sucked into it and stop paying attention to you.

Learning language is all about interaction. A child has to see you move your mouth. Hear the different ways you modulate your voice and get that connection between words and action. You do something and you accompany that with words. That is missing for the most part from an iPad. Kids cannot say something and see how it causes you to react to those words.

This is something I want to stress about reading books. People always keep harping on about how important it is to read for kids, but they never explain exactly why. How is reading any different from watching TV? Are you not a passive consumer just like when watching TV or an iPad?

This is the key point. You very well could be a passive consumer, in which case reading a book may not be much different from watching TV. But what a book allows is the ability to stop and discuss what you are reading. You can point at pictures and say what you see. The child can interrupt you and ask what is in the picture.

They may not understand something you have read and interrupt you with questions. Or you may realize they may not understand a new word you used, so you can ask them if they know what it means.

Initially you start with picture books and they can point at goldfish, dogs, cats, etc., and say what they are called. If they don’t know, you can point and say it.

But whether it is a simple picture book or a simple story, the key point remains that books allow interaction and discussion. If you get your kid to shut up while you read from start to end, then IMHO you are doing it wrong. Then it is no different from a TV. It is just passive consumption of content. The whole point is that a book allows these interruptions.

And good children’s books follow these very particular patterns in sentences that kids pick up on. Thus if you read the same book many times, they love being able to repeat the words before you say them. It becomes a little competition, where you can ask them to guess what comes next. They get thrilled when they are able to guess what is next.

I would often move my finger under the words I am reading, to convey the idea that there is a connection between what I am saying and the words on the page.

While I prefer books, you can actually get some of the same experience with a TV. The point however is to not just leave your kid in front of the TV and go do something else. Sometimes that is your only choice because you are busy. But otherwise what I have found to work well is to use, say, Apple TV or some other streaming service and pause the show periodically to allow the kids to ask questions and to explain stuff. Thus, by pausing frequently you can get some of the same experience as with a book. It becomes something you can have a conversation about. You can quiz the kids about what they see. Like who is the character on the screen over there? What is that thing floating on the water? Is that a boat? And so on.

In principle, you can do similar things on an iPad. The problem is that the iPad’s high level of interactivity can suck them them in to such an extent that they stop paying attention to anything else. That conversation you had hoped to have is gone. And taking away the iPad later feels like trying to take heroin away from a junkie. Your kid may handle this fine. All kids are different. But I have seen far too many times how toxic iPad and iPhone usage becomes for small kids that I would seriously try to avoid it.

If you are to give them electronic entertainment, my experience is that things like game consoles, like a Nintendo, works better. Having it on a TV that you cannot move around anywhere makes it easier to quit. They realize they cannot drag the TV around everywhere. The iPad and iPhone are too portable and too easily accessible at all times.

Raising Bilingual Children

My children are bilingual, speaking both English and Norwegian. I felt as I went through this that I uncovered some myths about being bilingual. People tend to praise being bilingual through the roof and give the impression that you can simply pile on language onto kids and they will soak up languages like sponges. Maybe some gifted children are like that, but my impression is that teaching two languages has a cost. It does not not come for free and you have to be careful about how you do it.

Bilingual kids will mix up both languages a lot. So you have to put in some effort to keep the languages separate and make it clear to them that they are dealing with two different languages. The way we solved this was that my Canadian wife always spoke English to them without exception and I always spoke Norwegian.

As their language skills got better we would often do little quizzes to such as “Mommy says potato. What does daddy say?” We would do this in our daily life as circumstances popped up to reinforce that both of us used different words for the same thing.

Interestingly I personally learned a lot about English from this experience myself. I became far more aware of how words in English and Norwegian almost never overlap in meaning completely. For example, “stone” in Norwegian is called “stein.” Looks quite similar to its English equivalent and is used in quite a similar fashion. But in Norwegian we refer to the seed of a grape as “stein” and talking about “stone-free grapes” does not make much sense in English. You would say “seedless” instead. “Seed” in Norwegian is “frø” but you would not use that in this context as a seedless grape would have implied that that you could grow it without using seeds, not that the grapes themselves are without seeds.

When you teach kids every possible basic word, you hit upon these irregularities all the time. You also get problems with grammar from one language getting used in the other language.

So your kids will likely get a bit behind compared to kids only using one language. I don’t want to scare any parent away from raising bilingual kids but don’t treat it as some kind of fashion statement. Don’t pile on languages because you want to create this successful kid. You can easily just create more problems for your kid. Do it because, for example, you and your partner speak different languages.

I see some parents push their kid to watch iPad, TV or whatever with a different language before they can even speak one language in the hopes the kid will become bilingual. That is likely a waste. Interaction with humans is key.

Final Words

I am not an expert on this, and I am just writing down my personal experiences and observations in the hope that you may find it useful.

What I find with many subjects is that often many things are completely self-evident once another person points them out. I don’t think what I write here is mind-blowing, but rather things that seem pretty obvious once somebody reminds you of them.

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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