Monday 21 June 2021

How Your Presence Boosts Early Language Skills

Language is arguably the most important skill your child must acquire. Language is the basis of everything. It is not only our means of communicating with others, but also, it is due to language that we are able to think, learn and remember. Without it we would not be the intelligent beings we are, for language and intelligence go hand in hand. 

Language is often something that we take for granted. After all, the majority of people learn to speak and most never think about the process in which speech is acquired. Late talkers usually catch up eventually but research is now suggesting that they may not catch up to the same level as their typically developing peers. Early language skills are so important and they can predict a child's later academic success and life achievements. Therefore, it is important to look at the significance of language, what it means for intelligence and how parents can create an environment in which their child can acquire language to the best of their ability. Presence plays a huge part in this and, in this article, I will be focusing on the importance of parental presence for a child's language acquisition.

The link between language and intelligence

At the start there needs to be a certain level of intellectual development in order for a child to acquire language, and then language facilitates intellectual development too. The two are mutually dependent on each other. 

Research by Dr Philip Dale at the University of New Mexico found that only 25% of language acquisition is due to genetics, so what accounts for the rest? That would be environmental factors with parental interaction being one of the biggest predictors of a child's language skills later on.

Being present with your child

We know that parental interaction has a huge impact on a child's early language skills but the NHS states that parents should spend just ten minutes a day interacting with their child. However, I believe this should really be the minimum. Dr Sally Ward, a Speech and Language Therapist from Manchester, created a programme called BabyTalk and claims that spending 30 minutes of quality time with your child each day can achieve amazing results. Ward says, 'Establish that you have half an hour a day on a one-to-one basis with your child, when you will be totally focused on each other. This total availability is the greatest gift you can give him.' Once one to one time with your child has been established, the programme lists ways in which a parent can best communicate with their child at any given age group.

The original BabyTalk study, conducted by Dr Sally Ward and her colleague Deirdre Birkett, followed a group of 140 children with delayed language development from the age of ten months to seven years. Half were put on the BabyTalk programme and half were not. Within four months, the BabyTalk infants had caught up with their typically developing peers. When the children turned three years old, almost all of the BabyTalk children were up to the normal standard or above, whereas 85% of those in the control group (who did not receive the programme) had a language delay. Then at seven years old, the BabyTalk children were on average one year and three months ahead of the control group with some being far more advanced. So, as you can see, the way a parent interacts with their child has a big impact on the child's language skills and being present with your child is the first step towards helping them achieve optimum communication skills.

Listen to your child

Being a present parent is vital for many reasons but one of the main things it will have a positive impact on is your ability to listen to your child. In fact, listening to your child may be even more important than what you say to your child. Furthermore, you can only listen and respond appropriately if you are being present with your child and giving them your full attention.

It is crucial that you listen to your child and respond to what they are saying because it is your response that will prompt them to communicate. When they make a noise or say a word and you respond to it, this helps them understand that their attempts to talk are important because they elicit a response from you. They will start to understand what communication is all about and will be encouraged to speak more. 

Remarkably, it has been found that responding to your child by touch is just as important as speaking to them when it comes to helping their language development.
Researcher Michael Goldstein carried out experiments with 9 month old babies and their parents, which looked at the effects of parental responsiveness on a baby's babbling skills. While a parent and baby played together in the experiment room, a researcher told the parent, through an earpiece, to 'Go ahead' and touch or kiss the child at certain intervals. Goldstein found that simply responding to a baby by touch, whenever the baby made a sound, had a dramatic affect on the frequency and maturity of the baby's babble. So being present, tuning in to what your child is saying - whether it's babbling or words - and then responding to what they say, is one of the most important ways to boost their language development.  

Establish joint attention

The ability to establish joint attention with your child is another big factor in language acquisition. In order for a child to be able to learn the name of something, she must first be looking at the object while it is named. Both parent and child must be sharing the same focus of attention in order for this to happen. The more the parent's speech relates to the objects that the child is focusing on, the wider the child's vocabulary and greater their understanding of grammatical structures later on. 

Attention is a skill which takes a long time to acquire. At first a baby's attention is entirely single-channeled so they will not be able to attend to more than one thing at a time. If they are entirely engrossed in playing with a particular toy, they will not be able to listen to what you are saying at the same time. It is not until a baby is nine months old that she finally acquires the ability to look and listen at the same time, however, from around five months old she is able to look where an adult is looking and share joint attention to the same object or activity.

From the age of nine months, labeling objects when a baby looks at them, had a positive correlation with their vocabulary six months later. This can only be done correctly through the process of joint attention and being present with your baby, and tuning in to what she is looking at, is necessary for this.

Reduce screen time

Language is learned in context through the process of sharing information. This is one of the reasons why young children do not learn language from a screen. Interactions with a responsive and communicative partner are vital for the language acquisition process and a screen cannot possibly fulfil this role. Not only is a screen unable to fulfil the role of a communicative partner, it also prevents social interaction because when a child is watching a screen they are unlikely to be interacting with others and others are unlikely to try to interact with them. The same goes for the parent too. If the parent is engaged in their phone, scrolling social media or watching an episode of their favourite drama, they are not going to be present and engaging with their child. Therefore, reducing screen time is a great way to help boost your child's speech and language development as you are likely to be more present with your child when neither of you are distracted by a screen.

So, as you can see, being present with your child can have a positive impact on their speech and language development in many ways. It can be the difference between them struggling to communicate, which in turn impacts on their behaviour and learning, and becoming confident communicators who are sociable and intelligent. In a highly distracted world, it is not always easy to establish this presence. However, your presence is undoubtedly the greatest gift you can give to your child. Make it happen.

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