By Siyang Sun, Speech-language Pathologist

We don’t have to teach a seed to become a flower, just like parents don’t have to “teach” language to their children. Learning to talk unfolds as it does—children are born with the innate ability to learn to talk. However, just as seeds do require nutrition and water to grow, children also need language input to acquire the language, and the quality and quantity of the input will have a major impact on language development.

How can parents make sure that they are providing the “language nutrition” in the best possible way? Of course you do not want to drill your children with speech lessons, but there is much you can do in your everyday life to make a difference.

Here are 6 principles that you can follow to nurture your child’s language learning:

1. Talk to your child, but listen to them as well.


It is essential that parents talk to their children a lot, because that is where the “quantity” of language input comes from. Nevertheless, you can’t talk all the time. It is equally important to listen to your child, as it encourages them to practice their language.

When your child starts to talk to you, it’s best to put aside what you are doing and bring your eye level to the same height as your child’s, for example by sitting or squatting, and looking at your child’s eyes with a smile. Also, give children some extra time to finish their talking and to respond to what you say. Try to avoid interrupting them.

2. If you correct your child’s talking, do it indirectly.


Just like we would hesitate before criticizing a friend or a peer, we should be equally sensitive about criticizing our children’s language skills as well. You wouldn’t correct a friend’s grammar in the middle of a conversation. It is most helpful to pay more attention to what your child is saying, than to how she says it. Parents should comment on the content of what children say. A helpful approach called “recasting” can be used to correct the child’s error and expand it without the child realizing the correction. For example, if your child says, “none of them trucks is working,” you might expand it with: “Oh, none of those trucks will work for you? Let’s see. How can we get those things to work?” Ending this “covert correction” with a question will also keep the conversation going.

3. Provide multi-sensory input when possible.


For instance, when we want the child to understand an apple is called an “apple”, it will be beneficial if the child has an opportunity to see it, smell it, touch it and taste it while the parents label it. Not only will the child establish more associations with apples in their memory, they are also likely to hear relevant verbs (eat, wash, peel, etc.) and adjectives (big, red, tasty, etc.) from real life experience which is more effective (and easier!) than teaching them to recognize items on picture books.

When you are labeling an item, putting it close to your face will enable the child to see how your mouth moves when you pronounce the word, which will help them imitate/articulate it in the future.

4. Talk about “here and now”.

Talk about what is happening at the moment and things that the child is looking at—this is particularly helpful when you are talking with an infant or a very young child. If you label something that the child is not paying attention to, he/she will absorb far less information.

5. Ask open-ended questions.

When you ask your child questions, remember to ask more open-ended questions such as how and why, instead of close-ended questions such as what, when, where, or even yes/no questions. This gives your child plenty of opportunity to elaborate and talk freely.

6. Avoid asking too many questions.


Asking questions should not be the only strategy. Make sure to comment and talk to your child about what they are doing– questions seem to be able to elicit more response, but sometimes it puts children under the pressure of giving a reply. Besides, children may just give you an answer and then stop talking. In contrast, commenting will encourage children to speak more by engaging them in conversations. Here is an example of “asking questions” and “making comments” when talking to your child, for instance when he is playing with sand:

  • Observational questions, such as “What are you making with the sand?”, “Is this a castle?”, are easy to answer with just one word (castle, yes, no).
  • Observational comments, such as “Wow you’ve got lots of sand here!”, “This looks like a castle!”, initiate a dialogue and open up space for your child to reply with whatever they are thinking.

Researchers in the UK have taken videos of nursery teachers interacting with children, and when the teachers watched the video they were astounded to see themselves asking tens of questions within a few minutes. However, children did not produce lots of speech but only gave a short answer as if they were in a hurry to finish their homework. When the teachers adopted the “commentator’s mode”, they found it difficult to get the children to stop talking!

Children learn a language with their innate ability—they are amazing discoverers of the rules of language that is spoken to them. Your job is to provide enough language input in a facilitative manner. Talk to your child the same way as to a friend, try to make every conversation a pleasant experience, listen to them attentively, and provide various learning opportunities—you will see their language flourish!