Language - what is it? (0-2 years)
We know that for most of us, the 'language' we speak is English.
But beyond that, what does 'language' involve, and what does it mean when a child has a language impairment?
Language is the words that are used when communicating, including knowing what they are, what they mean, and how they are used. It ranges from knowing what a 'ball' is, to being able to comprehend complex instructions, telling a story and writing an essay.
Language is a far bigger area than speech (which is the pronunciation of the words).
Interestingly, speech and language difficulties very often co-occur, meaning if you notice your child has some speech difficulties, they are at risk of language difficulties.
The tricky part is language difficulties are much harder for parents to notice compared to speech difficulties. Children with a language impairment can struggle to understand what has been said, explaining themselves, understanding stories or constructing sentences.
As children develop, it is important to be exposed to new language, so they can learn and apply to effectively communicate to others.
When you come across a word your child doesn't know, such as when they ask "What's....?" or when you are reading a book, there's a few strategies you can use to make sure they fully grasp this new word, and remember it.
1. Focused stimulation is a way to encourage your child to use new words and is applied when an adult and child are engaging in an interaction with a shared focus. During this interaction, a specific word, gesture or grammatical form is targeted and the child is exposed to multiple repetitions of this specific target. The child is not required to imitate the target, however they are given many opportunities to produce the target in a natural conversation with the adult. For example, when playing with play-dough, you might choose the word “cut”. Bombardment of this word is applied “cut the play-dough”, “I’m going to cut it”, “do you want a turn to cut?”, providing pauses and opportunities for your child to say the target word, “cut”. You can choose target words depending on what is meaningful to your child and what is happening in the moment!
2. Another great way to build language is by recasting. Recasting language is a way to expand language. Recasting is a type of modelling when giving feedback to children. It refers to repeating what the child has said, but with the errors corrected. For example, if your child says: “him blowing balloons”, you can respond with: “He is blowing the balloons! He is blowing them big! I wonder if he will blow us some balloons? I think he will!” Try to avoid imitating the child’s error, e.g. “Not him, it’s he”.
3. Move beyond nouns (naming words). When expanding language, it is important to include words that are not nouns (naming words), and use verbs (action words), and adjectives (describing words) as well. You might teach verbs (action words) by slowing down an action to draw your child’s attention to the meaning of the word (e.g: when targeting ‘sit’, you might use a car and small people and say ‘sit’ as their legs move upwards. You can link and generalise this by saying the word again when you “sit” on the chair, or “sit” in the car, or watch the puppy “sit”. It is important to say the word at just the right time, as the action is happening. It is helpful to look at your child’s eye gaze and check what they are looking at.
4. Categorising. As language develops, so does our understanding of the relationship between words, otherwise known as semantics. Words alone may have no meaning, or multiple meanings, and can change depending on the context, which is why understanding how words are related is so important!
You can expand your child’s understanding and use of words by linking words to one another and categorising. You might talk about categorising items by their size- “big” and “little” (e.g: “pick up the little block”), location- “in”, “on”, “under” (e.g: the car is under the bed”), whether they are the “same” or “different” (“we have the same colour”), or by function- “food”, “animals”, “people” (“the elephant and the zebra are animals!”). Understanding of the relationship between words adds meaning to language and is something that can always be expanded, no matter what the age!