"Why thank you!" I usually reply when this compliment is paid to me about how great Gemma's verbal communication is. It seems weird to receive a compliment on behalf of her, and even weirder to say "thank you" as if her ability to speak so well is somehow because of me. So I spent some time pondering on this idea recently, and came to an important conclusion - it is in fact somehow, at least partially, a result of my efforts that she speaks so well! This is a video of Gemma a few weeks before her second birthday:
Now, there are many factors, some of which could probably never be measured that contribute to a child's ability to communicate verbally. Of course, part of it is simply their natural level of intellect, and if there are any communicative barriers present in the child, such as the presence of Autism. Another part is their personality type - some kids are just really talkative by nature, whereas others prefer other methods of expression. Still another factor is their physical development. Oftentimes a speech impediment can be attributed to a tongue tie or other anatomical anomaly in the child.
But beyond the various elements which are more or less left up to nature to decide, I do believe that there are several factors that can be controlled by the parent which can contribute to nurturing a child's ability to verbally communicate well with others. I am SO not an expert in this field and my experience with it is simply anecdotal so keep that in mind as I continue! :) This is what I've found to have contributed to Gemma's verbal development in a positive way:
1. Talking and reading to her.
I know that might sound silly, but I think it is SO important. From the time she was still in my womb, we began to talk to her, Rocky and I both. Especially in the last few months of my pregnancy when I was no longer working and Rocky was gone all day at work... well, I needed someone to talk to!! Haha! So I would talk to her and sing to her all day, and this continued after she was born of course. I would look right at her and just talk. Didn't matter what I was saying, just that I was engaging her verbally. I would narrate my day to her, tell her how adorable she was, ask her what was wrong when she cried, etc. I'd read books to her, even if she seemed entirely uninterested in those first few months. A key element to this was that I never distorted the pronunciation of the language to her. It's one thing to whisper or raise the pitch of your voice when you talk to a baby - it's normal to talk to them in a "cutesy" way, but I knew that from the very start, we'd always communicate the language itself to her properly. Now believe you me, I had my cutesy baby voice I would often use with her, but I'd still say "What's wrong with my little baby?" not "What's wong wiv my wittle baby?" Not condemning folks who do this, but it just seemed to me that if I eventually wanted my kid to know how to pronounce our language properly, I should probably start modeling it myself as early on as possible so that we all didn't develop bad verbal habits.
2. Baby Signs.
Implementing some simple signs early on really helped her to gain confidence in her own ability to express her needs and wants to me. We started introducing a few signs when she was about 6 months old, and over the next few months she mastered a handful of fairly simple ones, and would often use one sign to express more than one thing, but I wasn't a stickler. What mattered to me was that she was communicating to me! It was awesome. Now here's the tricky part - I really think that there needs to be an end to using signs as the primary means of communication between parent and child. They're called Baby Signs for a reason. Pretty much as soon as Gemma started to show an increased ability and desire to use her voice to communicate to me, we stopped using signs. She was around 12 months old, so for us we only used the signs for a brief period of time as her communicative launching pad. Like I said, I'm no expert, so I could be way off here, but I somehow just felt that continuing to use signs when she was ready to communicate verbally would have been an impediment and a crutch to her overall development in the area of communication, so we switched gears once I observed she was ready.
3. Labeling and Narrating.
Once she was about a year old, and showing a propensity towards verbal communication, I started labeling everything to her. Every. Single. Thing. She had a sock in her hand? I'd point to it and say "sock." She started walking towards a bench? I'd lead her there and say "bench." She was watching me make myself a sandwich? I'd narrate the entire process to her: "This is bread. Now I'm putting mustard on it. See? Mustard. Now I'm putting cheese on it. Cheese." And so on and so forth. This just became our little norm. As I said, she was already used to me talking to her all day every day, so it came rather naturally to us, but I really make a distinguished effort to narrate and label the items and actions that her daily life was filled with, so she could start to build an organized and meaningful vocabulary.
4. Repetition and Encouragement.
So simultaneously with step 3, we began this process. Anything I said, I'd encourage her to repeat it. In the beginning, she rarely would. Sometimes she'd just stare at me blankly, other times, she'd completely lose interest and move on, and lot of times she'd just laugh at me. It's cool. I have a thick skin. I never pushed her, but by persistently encouraging her to repeat my words throughout the day, it took very little time for her to become interested in the process. Eventually, she'd attempt to say something after I prompted her. I'd pick up a book and say "Book. Can you say book?" and in the beginning the sound that came from her very rarely sounded anything like the word "book" but hey, she was trying. I'd encourage her again "Book. Book. Can you say book?" She'd try again. As days and weeks would pass, her repetition would become much more clear and her words sounded very much like the words I was encouraging her to say! It was awesome. Seriously! Any parent will tell you how cool it is when their kid starts to talk. Something really crucial we did during this time was to always encourage proper pronunciation. Of course the first few times she was working out a new word, we'd be happy to hear her say just about anything that sounded similar to the word we were trying to teach her. But once we had observed she was pretty confident with a new word, we'd work on her saying it the right way. Learning the word "marshmallow" for example. She said a few different things at first that sounded pretty close to it. Then she started calling them "mushrooms" so I'd slowly say "Marshmallow. This is a marshmallow. Say marshmallow." "Marshallow!" Okay, this was closer than mushroom, so I'd let it pass. After a few more times talking about marshmallows, I'd encourage her further. At this point she's calling them "Marshallows" so again, I'd say really slowly "Marshmallow. Say Marshmallow." And she'd get it! "Marshmallow!" Yay, we did it! :)
5. Conversation and More Encouragement.
As we worked on repeating almost anything and everything she touched, saw, or experienced throughout her day, I watched her vocabulary grow quite rapidly, and we very naturally just shifted into a more conversational relationship. I could ask her all kinds of questions and she was now equipped with enough words to actually communicate a meaningful answer to me. Now, of course, this was really, really simplistic early on (12-15 months). I'd say "What's this?" and she could reply "Book!" Woohooo!!!! Now we're really making progress! I could ask her "You're hungry? What do you want?" and she could answer me with a whole variety of words now, but usually her answer to that question at that point was "Milk!" haha my little nursing champ :) But as she grew, she could really tell me what different foods she was in the mood to eat.
6. Empowering Her and Overcoming Challenges.
Communication is a powerful thing. Giving the child the tools they need to communicate their needs and wants to you effectively is so vital to their well-being. Think of how frustrating life would be if you could net tell anyone around you what you needed or wanted! Up to this point, Gemma's verbal development was really flourishing and she was gaining so much confidence. We'd read a million books a day to grow her vocabulary and play all kinds of games to give her practice (What does a cow say? Moooo. Where does the birdie live? Tree. Who am I? Mommy!). But of course, there would come many occasions in which she would be trying to communicate something to me but didn't have the words yet. Bring on the tantrums. Almost all her tantrums at this stage of development (18 months +) seemed to have been very simple - she needed or wanted something, and could not figure out how to ask me. So I would do my best to empower her. I'd work with her to solve the problem and give her the words she needed. I'm making this sound so complex but we're talking really simple issues here, folks. Example: We're sitting on the floor and she starts making a fuss. I realize she's looking for something. She'd begin throwing items around and shouting, at which point I'd step in and say "let me help you find what you're looking for" and I'd begin listing every toy or item I could think of that she's come into contact with in the last 24 hours. Eventually we'd make progress "Is it a book?" She'd nod or say yes or something and then I'd start picking up and naming every book in the vicinity. No, no, no, we're not finding it! Her frustration would increase again... Okay, I'd have to think outside the box. What else is there that a 20 month old might interpret as book but is indeed something else? Hmmm... well she was coloring on a pad of contraction paper earlier... So I find the pad, hold it up and suddenly, the storm is over. We've found the magical item she so desperately needed, but now to save ourselves from this terrible problem in the future, I need to give her the words to communicate this to me next time. "Paper! You wanted paper. To color. Do you want to color?" "Yes!" "Okay, can you say paper?" "Paper" "And can you say color?" "Color!" Okay, awesome. Deep breaths all around. Now she's ready to communicate that need to me better next time, because I've empowered her with the words she needed! :)
7. Establishing a Safe Environment for her to Talk.
So remember earlier when I said some kids have a personality where they like to talk and other kids not so much? Well, I have a talker. Kid loves to jabber. Ask anyone who knows her. I can't tell you how many times she'd be yammering on an inch from my face when I was trying to read, or on the phone, or what have you. While there were definitely moments I'm not proud of, most of the time, I do try really, really hard to just let her talk. I stop what I'm doing, return her gaze, let her engage me in conversation and listen to her happy babble. And we talk. I'll answer all kinds of silly questions, oftentimes ten or twenty times in a row, because she so loves to repeat herself :) But it's important for her to feel that we care about her words. Now that she is so darn great at communicating, I certainly wouldn't want to squash her love for it. And when she makes mistakes... calls a cotton ball a marshmallow for example, I always try to respond positively to correct her: "You are so smart! That looks just like a marshmallow, doesn't it? But come feel it... look... it's all fuzzy. And we can't eat these. These are called cotton balls!" Sometimes it's hard not to giggle when she says certain things because she'd so stinkin' adorable but I try to never make her feel stupid or that I don't care about what she has to say. I always want her to feel confident and comfortable communicating to me and others.
So there you have it!! That's really all that comes to mind at this point as to why I think Gemma has become "such a great talker" as we've been told time and again. I've even had two speech therapists comment on how impressive her speech is for a two year old. Now again, how much of that is just nature? Is she just a natural-born talker? Has an IQ of 160? I don't know. I think that sure, she's pretty smart, and sure, she's naturally extroverted. But like I said, to say that those are the only factors which have helped her develop her verbal communication would be silly. I'm really happy about the steps that we took to encourage her development in that area, and would like to think that they did at least somewhat help her along the way in this area.
Now, what will be really interesting is to see how these steps will contribute to our new baby's verbal development! She'll probably have a way different personality and develop at a different pace than Gemma, so who knows what will happen? Maybe I'm just a nutcase and am patting my back for nothing at all! Watch this baby get to be Gemma's age and be hardly talking at all, even though I followed the same processes with her as we did with Gemma. Then I can really enjoy a big, fat piece of humble pie :) Time will tell!