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The third key that unlocks the mysteries of language for your child, is understanding.
In this extract, I explain a little about what it means to a baby and toddler to begin to understand words.
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One of the beautiful properties of language is that most words have a range of meanings. When you hear the work “dog”, you visualize a dog. You have a picture in your mind. Very likely the mental picture you have is different from the picture anyone else has. This is because the meaning of the word depends on your life experiences.
If you own a dog, you may think of him first. If your own dog’s a labrador, you’ll have a picture of a labrador in your mind, while your friend who has a dachshund will imagine her dog when she hears the word.
Understanding: making sense of sounds
For your baby, the first step in learning the meaning of words is linking the word to just one thing: in this case, a dog. Remember that, in his first year, “dog” is a string of sounds that has no meaning.
He hears that collection of sounds repeated many times. It begins to have a familiar ring about it, until he notices that every time he hears those sound combinations, that furry animal that barks and licks is in the room.
Every time he hears that particular string of sounds, there is this thing that you call “dog” around. At first, it may be the family dog. Then he may hear those sounds while you point to another dog next door or to a picture in a book. He hears “dog” each time.
Perhaps then, the word refers to any animal with four legs, or to anything with a collar. It could be any or all of these. Gradually, he learns that different animals have different names, or labels, and he recognizes those different labels.
His understanding grows so fast that by 2 years old he understands 200 words and more.
Your toddler starts to realize that words can go together in phrases. When you say “give it to daddy”, the words he picks out are “give” and “daddy”. These words carry the important meaning of the sentence, and the rest of the sentence is unimportant. Help him understand by emphasizing the important words you say, and by often using short, simple sentences.
Next, your child learns how words combine into phrases and sentences. “The cat sits” for example.
Grammatical markers, such as “-ing” and “-ed” help to increase the number of meanings attached to those words and phrases. You can say, “the cat sat”: changing one vowel sound in “sit” from “i” to “a” changes the tense of the phrase, putting it in the past. You can also add markers to turn the phrase into the future tense: “the cat will sit.”
Temper tantrums are likely in your 2-year old child, often the result of the frustration he feels. He can’t understand your explanation for denying him those sweets or toys he wants. He understands “no” but not “they’re bad for you.”
He can’t explain his own feelings of frustration, because his language skills have yet to reach a stage of development that allows him to put his feelings into words. No wonder he screams and kicks.
Often, sign language helps, as he uses a set of simple signs more easily than putting together the words and saying them so people understand. If you use sign language with your toddler, make sure you always say the words as you make the sign. You want your child to hear words in context many, many times, before he learns to say them himself.
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