There’s a reason Baby’s first word feels magical, whether they were calling out for you or just hoping to get their dinner a little early. Even though it’s probably not much longer than three letters, the first word Baby says looms large. But it’s the words that follow that first one that will be the building blocks for their first phrases and sentences and, before you know it, paragraphs full of everything they are thinking! Just talking to them will help them build the vocabulary that will help them to transform into the chatterbox they may turn into. There are also a few specific things that you and your partner can do to help their vocabulary expand.
Narrate the world
The words that are going to have the most interest for Baby right now, and the ones they will have the most use for, will be the ones related to their day to day life. It doesn’t matter if the words you use to narrate a trip to the gas station aren’t all that exciting. The important thing about the language Baby is learning now is that it’s teaching them the structure for how words get put together. This means how nouns are pluralized, how verbs are converted, and all of the other things native speakers of a language don’t remember having to actually learn, because learning them happens so young. Instead, these parts of speech are the pieces of what is going to ‘sound right’ to Baby as they grow. Baby is going to learn the basic rules of grammar long before they learn the words to describe them. The words you say to and around them basis for what they think language should sound like.
This doesn’t mean you need to walk around with a running monologue going, though, especially if you don’t feel comfortable with that. What you’re doing is having a conversation with Baby, even if they isn’t using many words on their side yet. Asking them questions and waiting a moment for their response, and then replying to it, even if it only comes in the form of a gurgle, babble, or significant look, is a great way to keep them engaged in talking to you. Another way is to talk to them about the things they are interested in. Even if they isn’t quite up to telling you what those things are in words yet, you may be able to work out which things are catching their attention just by following where they look the most often.
Up your gesturing game
A study published in 2013 by Erica Cartmill of the University of Chicago suggests that the children who pick up the most language from their parents aren’t necessarily the ones who hear the most words from their parents. Rather, they are the ones who have parents who use the most expressive gesturing and body language to help their children make the connection between the word they’re saying and the object in the world that it corresponds to. Hearing words is vitally important to young children, but having something to connect those words to is crucial as well. You can help babies make these connections by actions like making eye contact, pointing, and more involved hand gesturing (think “itsy-bitsy spider”).