Language and Literacy Development

Newborns’ preference of speech sounds over other types of stimulation indicates that babies are hardwired to learn human language. However, this preference will not guarantee babies’ mastery of language—a rich and stimulating environment is essential. It is important for caregivers to pay attention to the rapidly changing ability of infants and toddlers to understand words and gestures addressed to them (receptive language). Equally important is their ability to communicate to others (expressive language) in multiple ways—from cooing and smiles to words to simple sentences. For caregivers, staying in tune with the changes in infants’ ability to communicate and adjusting their own language to support this ability is the key not only to language development but to the development of other competencies.

Infants who are being talked to in more than one language follow the same developmental trajectory for both languages as do monolingual children. Learning two or more languages at the same time does not lead to cognitive deficits. In fact, bilingual children have been shown to be more advanced than their monolingual counterparts in some areas such as cognitive development and attention control.

Development of receptive and expressive language follows a fairly stable and predictable trajectory as babies progress from responding to their internal states with crying and smiling to using these earliest ways to express their needs and initiate communication with a caregiver. Later, as infants gain control over their mouth they begin producing more differentiated and complex sounds. The emergence of first words signals an important milestone not only in language but also in cognitive development as these words signify the first generalizations paving the way for the development of abstract thinking. In the next few months, children’s vocabulary undergoes a “growth spurt” making this period particularly sensitive to both quantity and quality of children’s communication with caregivers. Having learned their first words, toddlers begin stringing these into sentences, gradually mastering the grammar of language and the rules of its use. To create an optimal environment for infants’ and toddlers’ acquisition of language remember that in these early years children can understand more than they can express. Therefore, instead of oversimplifying language when talking to a baby or even mimicking the child’ s level of language production, caregivers should instead expose children to rich but not too complex vocabulary while commenting on their actions, asking questions, or giving directions. In addition to providing a rich language environment, caregivers should engage in back and forth conversations with their infants and toddlers. Research suggests that conversational experiences may be more important than just the quantity of words a child hears. As children’s use of expressive language grows, the optimal ways of supporting language development involve re-phrasing and extending children’s sentences as well as engaging children in longer conversation around familiar objects and events. The end of toddlerhood is marked by another important milestone in language and cognitive development when children begin using words to stand for the non-present people, objects, and actions in their world. Engaging young children in make-believe play will support this emergent ability.