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Which is Best for Babies: ‘Baby Talk’ or Complex Sentences?

“Let’s put the bananas in this bowl with the oranges and the apples.”

Speaking directly to babies and toddlers in rich, complex sentences like the one above will help them build language and vocabulary skills by connecting words and meaning, and learning through context, said Stanford researcher Anne Fernald at a symposium last week. 

Research presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science symposium reinforced findings that positive, language-filled environments help babies and toddlers learn words and their meaning, and early childhood is the critical time to build vocabulary skills that help put youngsters on a path to be ready to learn when they enter kindergarten.

Panelists at the symposium also included Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman from the University of Chicago, Erika Hoff from Florida Atlantic University and Kimberly Noble from Columbia University.

Fernald’s recent study, which found that the “achievement gap” between children from different income levels is measurable as early as age 18 months, emphasized that using varied language with good grammar helps young children learn words through context.

The speed at which a child processes language is important for learning through context. For example, a parent might say, “The dog is on the chair.” If the child recognizes “dog” quickly enough, she can figure out the meaning of “chair” by the context. But if she’s slow to recognize “dog,” “chair” flies by before she can make the connection.

That’s why parent-child interactions are so critical during these early years. If the child is slow to recognize the meanings of “dog” and “chair,” the parent provides the context to help make those connections. Babies and toddlers learn words that are spoken directly to them, rather than from words heard on a video or overheard in other conversations. Child-directed speech and the interaction between the child and parent or caregiver is what builds vocabulary and enables babies and toddlers to learn even more words through context.

Here are more ways parents and caregivers can influence language development in babies and toddlers.

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