Music to my ears
Crying is your baby’s first form of communication. Although a baby can’t really produce language for the first 6 months, he’ll begin by using his tongue, lips, palate, and any emerging teeth to make sounds. Smacking, gurgling, blowing, chirping and cooing are all part of this delightful repertoire. It’s extremely important that your baby hears all sounds of the language (phonemes, intonations, and melody).
Babies are far superior to adults at recognizing speech sounds. As an example, Japanese babies clearly hear the distinction between /r/ and /l/, something adult Japanese are famously deaf to hearing. Unfortunately, this uncanny sound recognition ability disappears very soon, beginning to slip for vowels after about 6 months of age. In experiments, English-speaking babies at 6 months could no longer distinguish between some German or Swedish vowels that they had recognized at 4 months of age.
Use it, or lose it
While the perception of vowel sounds begin to blur at around 6 months, some of the consonants follow at around 12 months. Why does this happen? It’s a ‘use it or lose it’ proposition that ensures we focus upon the most heard, most useful sounds. Synaptic connections not exercised atrophy from lack of use. The brain effectively prunes out the neighboring, similar sounds and creates highly distinct ‘buckets’ for the sounds of the native language(s). The enormous advantage is that the boundaries between the sounds become ever clearer, enabling baby to instantly recognize each sound despite dialects, accents, or sloppy speech. Simply put, these ‘sound-buckets’ effectively gloss over any imperfections in the sounds we hear and help us understand what is said — even on a crackly phone line. Incidentally, this is precisely why computers have such difficulty with speech recognition.
In a nutshell, baby’s frequent use of certain sounds ultimately stabilizes the specific neurological paths necessary for the native sounds at the expense of unused foreign phonemes. For example, of the 6,000 or so phonemes worldwide that babies are born recognizing, English and German babies become sensitive to the more manageable number of 40, while and French and Spanish babies recognize around 30 each. Imagine what a difference that makes in speed.
Cross-cultural studies have verified that all young babies sound the same regardless of language when they’re babbling, but as early as 10 months distinct differences in their sounds can be detected. English speakers produce more "eeh" vowels, while German babies produce more vowels with pursed lips like in "über" and Swedish babies sound increasingly like the Swedish Chef on the Muppet show. Hearing the language allows your baby to understand what sound combinations are possible. For example, "dz" is perfectly okay in Czech, but a dead end street in English, and words starting on /s/ are a no go for Spanish speakers (all s-sounds are automatically preceded by an /e/, so that "stop" becomes "estop").
Read my lips
Melody and word stress are closely related to the individual sound elements of the language. In English, the emphasis falls mostly on the first syllable (te-ddy, bu-nny) whereas other languages, like French and Portuguese typically put stress on the last syllable like pia-no. In addition to the amazingly complex foundation of language, baby also needs to sort out syllable timing. Compare the English “dinosaur” with Spanish “dinosaurio.” In English, the emphasis is on the first syllable which is also held longer, reducing the last sound to an "oh" like sound. Spanish speakers, on the other hand, pronounce “dinosaurio” [di-no-sau-ri-o] stressing the third syllable, but giving equal timing to the other syllables, clearly pronouncing each letter. Tests show that babies not only babble with the intonation of their own language, but that they actually prefer to listen to it. And they can’t be easily fooled. Playing a tape backwards of their own mother speaking to them in the native language did not pass muster.
So, how do you speak as clearly as possible to your baby so that she can best organize her phoneme inventory? Mother Nature has already taken care of that for you. It’s not your job interview voice we’re talking about here, but what we call Parentese or sometimes Motherese, that high-pitched, exaggerated voice that parents use to talk to babies has a place in virtually all cultures. Not only does the voice of a parent speaking to a baby change, but so does the content. Parentese involves lots of repetition — varying the same sentence slightly over and over: "Look at the bunny! Can you see the bunny? Look how fast the bunny is running!" Aside from serving to articulate the language extremely clearly and slowly, it also serves as an acoustic ‘hook’ for baby. Your little one knows you’re talking to HER! And, babies love it. They like it so much, in fact, that studies show if given a choice, they prefer hearing parentese in a foreign language over a normal voice in their own language. Parentese is the language equivalent of comfort food for babies.
Considering all the linguistic elements that baby needs to figure out during the first year of life, and how amazingly subtle the variations are, will give you an appreciation of why language is a process that takes time. Now, add one or two languages — and don’t forget all the other wonderful skills baby learns during its first year. It’s truly mind-boggling what a baby can do!
Look at the different sections for what baby understands and can say at these stages:
- 12-24 months: The second year is all about words and linking words to objects. Just as with monolinguals, this is a highly individual phase. Be patient, and you will be richly rewarded with the first words, in one or several languages.
- 24-36 months: Now your child is sorting out the grammar and increasing the vocabulary by leaps and bounds. Your child may be slightly delayed compared to monolingual peers going into the third year, but you’ll notice the gap closing quickly at the tail end.