There’s a reason Baby’s first word feels magical, whether he was calling out for you or just hoping to get his 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 his first phrases and sentences and, before you know it, paragraphs full of everything he is thinking! Just talking to him will help him build the vocabulary that will help him to transform into the chatterbox he may turn into. There are also a few specific things that you and your partner can do to help his vocabulary expand.
Narrate the world
The words that are going to have the most interest for Baby right now, and the ones he will have the most use for, will be the ones related to his 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 him 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 he grows. Baby is going to learn the basic rules of grammar long before he learns the words to describe them. The words you say to and around him basis for what he thinks 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 he isn’t using many words on his side yet. Asking him questions and waiting a moment for his 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 him engaged in talking to you. Another way is to talk to him about the things he is interested in. Even if he 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 his attention just by following where he looks 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”).