Home Talk: A Natural Context for Learning and Using Language
Evan’s family helped him understand and label his new experience with snow. Their language support was natural and was guided by Evan’s constant questions: “Why doesn’t this snow make a snowball? Why can’t I make an angel on this snow?” Evan’s learning while he played was nothing new or extraordinary; he has received language support from his parents and sibling from the moment he was born. His parents and older sister intuitively supported his attempts to communicate. When Evan was an infant his parents, like most parents, naturally used parentese. That is, they talked to him in higher-pitched tones, at a slower rate of speech, and with exaggerated pronunciation and lots of repetition of phrases. Parentese helped Evan hear the sounds and words of his native language. Between the age of eighteen months and three years, as Evan’s communicative competence grew, his family intuitively adjusted their verbal responses so that he could easily learn new vocabulary and grammatical structures.
In fact, the most important component of learning language is actually engaging children, even infants, in conversational bouts. Families can provide the rich social context necessary for children’s language development. The thousands of hours of parent–child interactions from the moment of birth through the preschool years provide the foundation for language. As children acquire language, they are able to share with others what they feel, think, believe, and want. While most children begin to use their expressive vocabulary in the second year of life, research has long documented that children differ in their ability to learn and use new words (Smith & Dickinson, 1994). In an effort to understand what accounts for these differences, researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley (1995) documented parent and child interactions during the first three years of children’s lives. The research team observed forty-two families from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds one hour each month for two-and-a-half years. Their data revealed vast differences in the amount of language spoken to children. Children from welfare homes heard an average of 616 words an hour; children from working-class families heard 1,251 words an hour; while children from professional homes heard 2,153 words per hour! If one thinks of words as dollars, the children from these different socioeconomic homes would have significantly disparate bank accounts. Further, this long-term study revealed that early language differences had a lasting effect on children’s subsequent language accomplishments both at age three and at age nine. In other words, talk between adults and children early in life makes a significant difference. To look at an example of how this language difference begins to multiply, observe the following interaction between three parents and their babies, regarding preparing to eat a meal.
Mom 1: Okay, Crystal, let’s eat.
Mom 2: Okay, Paulie, it’s time to eat our lunch. Let’s see what we are having? Yes, let’s have carrots.Mom 3: Okay, Teryl, it’s lunchtime. Are you hungry? Mommy is so hungry! Let’s see what we have in the refrigerator today. What is this? It’s orange. Could it be peaches? Could it be apricots? Let’s see!! See the picture on the jar? That’s right, it’s carrots.
Unfortunately, many parents do not realize how important these verbal interactions or conversations are to helping children learn to talk and build vocabulary (Rhodes, Enz, & LaCount, 2006).
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