As a pediatric speech-language pathologist, parents often ask me what they can do to support their child's language development. The simple answer is this: talk to your child, sing to your child, and read to your child...EVERY single day! These interactions are essential for all young language learners.
Educational TV programs and apps, while widely popular, are less effective at helping young children develop functional communication skills (3). It is true that exposure to educational media can teach young children their letters, numbers, shapes, and colors...but language development requires more than just learning new vocabulary words and memorizing concepts out of context. Language consists of five equally important systems:
PHONOLOGY refers to the sound patterns that occur within a language. Young language learners must figure out which sounds are important to their language and which ones are not. In English, for example, the vowel sounds "ih" and "ee" are distinctly different (as in the words "bit" and "beet"); in Spanish, however, this vowel difference is not important (which explains why a native Spanish speaker may say, "That dog beet my son" instead of "That dog bit my son").
Semantics refers to the different types of words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.) and the meaning of those words (vocabulary). This is the language system that can be supported with high-quality educational apps and TV programs when they are used in moderation with children over the age of 2 1/2 (there is no research that shows any developmental benefits of screen time for babies and toddlers under age 30 months). Any screen time with toddlers and preschoolers becomes more effective when the adult mediates the experience with the child (it's called co-viewing!). It is important to recognize, however, that having a large vocabulary is only one component of language development. I work with plenty of little ones who can label flashcards 'til the cows come home...but do not spontaneously use their words to communicate their wants, needs, and feelings. Labeling is not a functional communication skill!
Syntax refers to the acceptable word order in the specified language. The word order system is highly structured and rule-based. In English, for example, the adjective precedes the noun; in Spanish, the adjective follows the noun. A child who struggles with learning the rules for word order may sound a bit like Yoda from Star Wars, saying things like "Pretty are the stars" or "North America we live."
Morphology refers to how words are formed and how the different parts of words change the meaning (prefixes, suffixes, plurals). The small changes we make to words helps us explain things such as the number of objects we're referring to (one dog vs. two dogs), whether we're talking about the past or present (walked vs. walking), and how the subject agrees with the action (I eat, she eats, they eat). Like the word order system, the grammar system is also highly structured and requires children to learn not only the rules, but also the exceptions to the rules (in English we have many exceptions to the rule!).
Pragmatics refers to how we use language to socialize and interact with other people. Some of the social rules a child will need to learn include: taking turns in conversation, making eye contact with the communication partner, revising the message when there is a misunderstanding, and changing communication styles with different people (child says "mommy night-night" when speaking to her baby brother, but says "Mommy went to bed" when speaking to her father). It is virtually impossible to learn the social rules of language during screen-based activities, because there is not a responsive communication partner.
It is also important to understand that language is not taught...language is acquired through meaningful, back-and-forth interactions with other people (2). Therefore, the way adults talk to young children matters. There are two kinds of "talk" that adults can use to enhance language and cognitive development: BUSINESS TALK and EXTRA TALK (1).
Business Talk is the language used to keep life moving forward and includes statements such as:
What therapists and educators need to know about early child development
Cari Ebert, MS, CCC-SLP, is a pediatric speech-language pathologist who specializes in apraxia, autism and early intervention.