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Children and Language

Listening - the Child

Long before the child expresses herself clearly in language she has been listening and absorbing everything she hears. Often we are not even aware that the child is doing this but once she begins to speak it becomes very clear. Three times in my life, with each of my three children, I have purposefully polished my language—as they repeated everything I said!

We can talk to the child from birth on, not in baby talk, but with respect and with a precise vocabulary. If we want to help our children be well-spoken we must model this long before we might have previously thought necessary.

A Second Language

The acquisition of all languages spoken in the environment of the child begins in the womb before the child is born, and continues to be an important part of the child's experience in the first months and years. At this age children show an uncanny ability to absorb language in all its complexities, and not just one language! Here is some advice that supports the learning of more than one language at a time:

The language must be used in the child’s environment in the first years of her life, in the sense that one or more persons should speak the ‘extra’ language to the child and in her presence.

If we could have two, three, four or five different persons speaking different languages around the child, she could easily absorb all of them without any particular effort, provided that each person speaks to her ALWAYS AND ONLY in their language. But this is possible only in the first years of life.

In Japan, a course was recently developed, consisting of playing English-language cassettes three times a day to infants from birth to the age of six months. When, at the age of three, four or five years, these children come into contact with an English teacher, they learn the foreign language much more easily than other children. —Dr. Silvana Montanaro

Listening - the Adult

The attention we give to a child when he first begins to talk to us is significant. Often a child is so excited about talking about being able to express himself that he stutters. This is a very natural stage in the development of verbal language and a sign for the adult to stop, look, and listen, NOT to supply the missing word, or to comment on the stutter. When the child is sure that he will be listened to he will usually calm down and learn to speak more clearly.

Including the Child

Language development begins before birth and continues to be a major part of the child's development for the first three years of life. We can best help a child develop good language by including the child in our conversation from the very beginning. I once learned a beautiful lesson about including children:

One day as I was working in an intensive care nursery for infants, I observed a six-month-old boy who was lying on a floor mat next to three doctors who were seated on chairs discussing his case. The head nurse noticed that the pediatricians were ignoring the child, and she asked them to remember their policy— to include him in a conversation.

The doctors knew instinctively that she was right. They did not simplify their vocabulary or artificially raise their voices to address the child. They changed their visual focus so that the child was included, as any adult would have been, whether or not he was contributing verbally to the conversation. They continued their discussion, including the child. The self respect of the child was immediately evident by the happy expression on his face and in the way he kept glancing from face to face as though he knew that he was part of this important conversation.


There is nothing in the intellect which was not first in the senses. —Aristotle

The experience of real objects should come before pictures or names of these objects whenever possible. For example, if you have a new book with pictures of fruits and vegetables, take the child to the kitchen and handle, smell, cut up, and taste a piece of fruit; then go look at a picture of it, and other fruits, in the book. Then the intelligence is built upon a wealth of experience.

A child wants to learn the name of every object in his environment, and the meanings of the words he hears others using. He wants so much to be able to communicate about daily life with his family! Give him the names of kitchen objects, toys, food, vehicles, dogs, etc.—anything found in the home and the community.

There is a 'sensitive period' for naming things . . . and if adults respond to the hunger for words in an appropriate way, they can give their children a richness and precision of language that will last a lifetime. —Dr. Silvana Montanaro

Pictures & Books

When the child has learned the names of many real objects, we can extend this vocabulary with pictures. Vocabulary books and cards are valuable educational materials for the children at home—and they love them!

The selection of books is as important as that of toys. Library visits are very important, but there should also be favorite books in the child's own library. Sometimes a child in this critical or sensitive period for language will want a book read over and over again. At other times he will just want to hear about the pictures and talk. A child also loves to be shown how to turn pages carefully, to pick up, hold, carry and put away a book. Most children will sit enthralled for hours if we read to them, so this is our chance to pass on the love of literature and of reading, to teach facts, values, and the pronunciation of words, even those not often used in everyday speech.

An effort should be made to provide books that show children from all cultures, and that do not stereotype situations and people. The language of the book should show respect for the child, his emotions, and his intelligence.

Make careful selections of books and provide a bookrack or some other easily accessible place to keep them, so that the child can always find the one she wants, can care for them and put them away by herself.

Be picky! Even many simple vocabulary books are crowded, full of overbright colors, and too stimulating for the child. It is far better to have only a few beautiful books to be loved and respected, than to have many that are unworthy of the developing mind of a young child.

At this age the subjects in books should be based on reality because the child wants to learn about the real world. Now we provide stories about out own lived, and books about reality, saving talking animals, such as in Aesop's Fables, till later.

Fantasy is very interesting to the older child, but only confusing to the very young. A rich foundation of stories about the real world is the best preparation for a creative imagination.

We should check that they [books] present reality, since at this age children are trying to make sense of the environment and the life around them. There is nothing more extraordinary and interesting than our own daily life. Fantasy can come later—after reality has been experienced and absorbed. —Dr. Silvana Montanaro

Reading and Writing

The foundation for a child's spoken language ability is aided by making eye contact as we listen and speak respectfully to her from birth on, by setting a good example in our speech to each other, and by reading aloud to her from an early age. The child's spoken language is the foundation for her later ability in reading and writing.

It is no accident that some children are good at reading and writing and others are not, that some find joy in this work and for others it is tedious. The joy of exploring language begins early, and is the most intense, throughout the first three years of life.

The Alphabet

A very young child whose older sibling is learning to read often becomes interested in learning about the alphabet. In order not to cause later confusion, we offer this child the sound of each letter and use only lower case letters. Think about it. When a child learns capital letters, and the names of the letters he is not at all prepared to learn to read and write. Almost all writing and reading is of lower case letters, "b" instead of "B," and the sounds are what we need to read, "sss" instead of "es," for the letter "s." Learning capitals and names of letters, although taught first for many years, is what makes learning to read and write so difficult for children.

The most important thing to remember is to follow the child's interests, and to keep learning natural and enjoyable.

This article was originally published on

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