4 Fool-Proof Tips to Expand Your Child’s Language

It finally dawns on you that what is meant to be a natural process (talking) isn’t happening so naturally for your 2+ year old toddler and the panic starts to set in. First words are special for any parent. I recall when my children started talking. I had so looked forward to their tiny voices and them finally speaking their little hearts out was aww so gratifying. What may not be apparent is that although talking is a natural process, nurture plays a big part in it. Some toddlers, more than others need a little more encouragement to get there. Speech pathologists work with late talkers as well as their parents to stimulate baby’s first words. What we do can be replicated by parents at home and help to bring baby’s language skills to par. These are some of the tricks of the trade. Most don’t require any expertise. No.4 is probably where most parents may get stomped. Read on to find out if you are guilty of not doing no. 4.

1. Repeat to expand your child’s language

Especially for children with delayed speech and language

When talking to your baby, repeat single words and short phrases. I often tell the parents who visit my clinic that unless they’re sounding like a broken record, then they’re not doing enough.
“If you don’t go to bed with a tiny headache from how much you have talked to your child, then you have not done enough.”
This is especially true for the children with delayed speech and language skills, but also for parents with toddlers. Children rely on hearing a word several times in order for the word to be learnt. A good case in point is your child’s first words (or first vocabulary). Whatever your child’s first word/s is (are) is a reliable way of determining what word/s is (are) commonly said in your home. If your child says “pe” (abbreviated Swahili for “give”), well, you better believe that that’s the word your child has been exposed to a lot. So if this is true and you wanted to encourage more words, all you need to do is increase the frequency of the words you use with your child, but most importantly repeat them during each interaction. For example: You: {as you climb up steps/stairs} Shall we go up {pause} up {pause} up (Be sure to leave pauses after each ‘up’ and look at your child as if to ask for permission to keep going).

2. Model your child’s language

Make your child’s language understandable to others

So your baby has invented a new language, which only you understand. Whilst this form of symbolic communication should be applauded, you wish baby could be understood by everyone. And the good news is, there is a simple strategy you could use to gently get your child to approximate his/her words better. Modelling is when you combine all language stimulation techniques in order to provide your child with a good display (or model) of what they need to say or how they need to say it. At any given time, you as the parent/caregiver should model the correct form of a word or phrase and ensure you speak slowly and consciously. If for example, your child is begging to sit on your lap/ or to be picked up. One, you could go ahead and pick them up or two, you could model what they should be saying, e.g. “up” before you picked them up. Or if your child mumbles/babbles whilst pointing to a banana, that’s your big chance to model the word “banana”. When my first two children were beginning to talk at around 11-15 months, I shortened the word “banana” to “nana”; “water” to “wawa”; “thank you” to “ta”; etc. At the time, my husband was rather worried (more with the first child) because he imagined we were raising a child who would need us to teach the mature versions of her “baby talk”. But, if you’re like my husband, I say, “fear not”. As your child picks up ‘self’ or ‘other’ taught simplifications, you can model the correct forms. If your child is consistently asking for “wawa”, you could now say, “yes, darling let me get you water” and when you bring back the water, you could say, “here’s water for Jeremy!” Modelling also requires that you constantly challenge your child to move up to the next linguistic level. This simply means if your child is not yet saying single words, you only model single words or rather reinforce single words when interacting with them. If you reinforce an entire phrase, your child continues to be discouraged to talk as the targets seem so out of reach. Similarly, if your child is already saying single words, you should aim to not only increase the overall number of words they can say, but you should also try to encourage word combinations. For example: Child: wawa You: Drink water. Drink up. Child: inkup. You: {praise} Yes, drink up! In speech therapy, we refer to this constant upping of the ante with regards to your child’s language as ‘expansion’ or ‘recasting’ and I always advocate for working within your child’s ‘zone of proximal development’, which simply means don’t teach running before your child is walking (trying to be figurative here). You always teach what should come next and not what should come 3 steps later.Q
“You always teach what should come next and not what should come 3 steps later.”
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3. Use serve and return interactions to expand your child’s language

I very well may be weird, but I am SOO in love with this paragraph: Serve and return interactions shape brain architecture. When an infant or young child babbles, gestures, or cries, and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words, or a hug, neural connections are built and strengthened in the child’s brain that support the development of communication and social skills. Much like a lively game of tennis, volleyball, or ping-pong, this back-and-forth is both fun and capacity-building. When caregivers are sensitive and responsive to a young child’s signals and needs, they provide an environment rich in serve and return experiences Centre on the Developing Child- Harvard University. Simply put, you must aim to extend your child’s ‘turns’ during interaction. You’re probably wondering where the turns are with your nonverbal child, but trust me, they are there, you have just not realised what they were. These turns are POWERFUL and can greatly promote language skills. For your nonverbal child, the turns looks like this: Child: {indicates through pointing that they would like a particular toy} You: You want ball. {pretend not to understand/offer the wrong toy} Child: {shakes head, but may be more like a little tantrum} You: Oh! you want the blocks. Blocks. Here you go {hands over blocks} Those were just 2 returns, but still better than 1. For your verbal child, the turns look like this: Child: Mama juice You: Thirsty already. Would you like apple or orange juice? Child: {points to orange juice} You: Yummy orange juice.

4. Increase communication temptations

Communication temptations are invitations for your child to interact with you or someone else. Particularly for children with language delays, the home environment can be holding them back from communication as in most cases when a child isn’t talking yet, parents make attempts to simplify the home environment so that their child doesn’t need to communicate. This is sadly, counterproductive as pr-emptying your child’s every need makes them a bit too comfortable and doesn’t encourage them to want to communicate. If you think about it, one of the reasons we communicate is because we would like our needs met, but if those needs are met without us being troubled to ask, then we stop wanting to communicate. I have met many children who are simply too comfortable and have formed a habit of not needing to communicate because even when they didn’t, their needs were still met. So how would you set up communication temptations? Well, simple. Have items your child may want to request, such as a favourite toy items, etc. within reach, but not completely accessible. So, favourite toy items could be in see-through containers that have a lock function so that your child must approach you for assistance to reach the items and when they do so, it is your big opportunity to “teach”.  Parents should also not encourage self-sufficiency at early age especially for children who have delayed language skills. Your 3 year old shouldn’t be used to grabbing the yoghurt from the fridge without asking for assistance because they become too accustomed to fending for themselves and not communicating. Parents can also learn not to be too agreeable or indulgent. Say, you preempt that your child wants a particular drink, you could decide to “sabotage” by giving them a less preferred option in order to tempt communication. These tips will not only encourage your child to talk, but if you practised them consistently, your efforts will not go unrewarded. Believe me. There are a number of different ways of encouraging your child to talk more. These are a few of my go-to ones. Download this list for ease of referral and check out similar blog posts on this topic. Wishing you positive vibes.

Hi, I'm your teacher

Lorna Muthamia-Ochido

I run a family-centred speech-language therapy clinic, the largest in East and Central Africa. I’ve helped 15,000+ children optimise their communication outcomes (in other words, I make children smarter ☺).

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