Talk more and more often with your children (ideally 21,000 words a day)
A friend of my mother, who had her two girls when she was pretty old and after much suffering, addressed them in this way:
– Hoooolaaaaa little princess! Achuchuchúuuu! But what a mooooonas. Achuchumooonas! Achuchuchuiiiiis! Aguguchuhitaaaaaaas! Apuchichichtaaas… How are you, apapachichititits?
It was quite a show before which the only two who did not seem surprised were the girls. They were used to the vague language that their mother, perhaps carried away by the emotion of having two such cute daughters, had invented for them.
I have lost track of the girls and my mother’s friend a long time ago. When they were little, they barely uttered a word the few times I saw them, but I imagine that today, as adults, they usually speak. However, I couldn’t stop thinking about them when reading this report, Talk to Your Kids, published in The New Yorker magazine.
Written by the journalist Margaret Talbot and with an illustration by Leo Espinosa, the text spoke of a program undertaken by the mayor of an American city (Providence) to encourage families to communicate more frequently with their children. The program (called Providence Talks) is aimed at families with fewer economic resources: it is in these homes where the so-called “gap of words” is most pronounced.
The age of the children for whom the program is intended is from 2 to 30 months. Parents who want to participate agree to meet, over a year, with a social worker who teaches them to converse better with their children. During this time, the boys and girls carry a machine that counts the words spoken at home. The purpose, they explain, is to reduce the aforementioned “word gap”: a study carried out in the USA in the 1990s ensures that children raised in families with fewer resources, by turning four years old, have heard about thirty million fewer words than those of wealthy families. A vocabulary deficit that, among others, makes them has worse results in school.
Parents are the first educators, and from us, they will learn the language with which they will function in life. And in this field, we are the main responsible: we cannot blame the system. “Speaking is the foundation of everything and the family nucleus is fundamental, because the language is learned by impregnation, by habit. If in those three to four years before sending the child to school we lay strong foundations, they will continue throughout life”, explains the author of And the verb was dust: are we destroying our language?
And how do you put those strong foundations? I have summarised what they advise in the United States and what emerged in the Parent’s Guide. Almost everything has a lot to do with common sense, but it is worth remembering:
1) To start with, you have to make an effort: It is logical that fathers and mothers, usually tired and stressed (or perhaps more interested in watching TV, playing with the mobile or reading the newspaper than in having a decent conversation with our offspring), often address her as follows form:
– Bring me that from there (referring to “the newspaper”, which is “on my nightstand, in the bedroom”, or “on the television remote control”, which is “in the first drawer of the living room dresser”). Or “give me that over there” (referring to “the cutting board” that is “on the kitchen counter”).
Fatal, especially when they are little; because, making a little effort to explain to our children how things are will help them “to specify” an essential resource in life;
2) Flee from diminutives and similes that are useless: Enough of “leachates”, “toys” and “pretty ones” that have condemned so many childhoods to kitsch; Nor is it necessary to invent incomprehensible languages, as the constant of my mother’s friend. Parents do not have to adapt their speech to theirs but to give them resources. If the child says to you, “Look! A” child-child”,’ you should not say,” Oh yes! What a beautiful child-child “(or, even worse:” What a beautiful child-child”), but: “What a beautiful ambulance.” And, if we were in America, what they would recommend us next would be to say: “And look, it has lights that are blinking, and they are orange.”
3) Because adding an extra word to them: Not skimping on explanations,
is essential to achieve those 21,000 daily words that, according to Providence Talks, should be heard in a family for the appropriate development of a child (21,000 words are, approximately, the equivalent of reading to them 12 times the story The Cat in the Hat, by Dr Seuss). Thus, when a child begins to speak, for example, and says “car”, you have to celebrate that new word but add: “Yes, it is a car. A big blue car”;
4) Talk out loud to the baby: Even if you are not doing anything extraordinary, you can explain to him what happens when you bathe or dress him, what you are cooking him, what you buy in the supermarket, what you see while you walk him You also do not have to be a drill and not be silent (the baby also has the right to his moments of peace), but it must be encouraged verbally. If the “talking points” run out, you can also sing to them, count them out loud, and ask questions, even if they can’t answer yet. For example, if you are preparing an apple, explain that “this is an apple, red, and this is how it is cut, with a knife; you like apples?”.
5) Read stories to them and interact with them: Point to something interesting in the book and name it (“Look! A ball”); ask them things about it (“What’s this? A cow, Cows go moo. Mogen. Can you say moo?” If the baby babbles or responds, acknowledge that response; it is the first way to start a conversation. If he makes a mistake in saying something and is corrected, do it in a positive way (instead of: “No, this is not a dog, it is a monkey”, say: “It looks like a dog, because it is brown, like many dogs, he’s a monkey”).
6) The TV, better off: The ubiquitous gadget interferes with family communication. Quantitative data from the Providence Talks program has shown much more conversation in families when the television is off. Still, it appears that having the television constantly on is a difficult habit to break in many households.
Avoid monosyllables and try to maintain dialogues: Ask them, “What hurts you?” instead of giving them a yes / no option with a question like “Does your head hurt?” Start them with metaphors and comparisons (“Does it hurt like you’re getting punctured?” Instead of the typical “Does it hurt a lot?”); Parents are also advised at Providence Talks to try to avoid automatic NO. If the baby takes the TV remote, for example, instead of saying NO and that’s it, try to “redirect” him (“No, the remote can’t be taken, but you can play with your stuffed dog, the white one and black…”). Children from wealthier families receive a significantly higher proportion of affirmative comments than families with fewer resources.
Although it is a long-term program, Providence Talks is already beginning to pay off. This BBC report explains how one of the families who participated in the number of daily words in four months increased from 11,000 to 28,000. Since her mother talks to her more and reads books frequently, three-year-old Ayleen has stopped watching so much television and playing with the tablet. “Mother and daughter talk while washing dishes together or preparing to eat. Speaking turns are also respected, which is another change, “says the BBC. The mother says that communication with her daughter before participating in the program consisted of telling her what to do. “Now, she tells me what she feels,” she says proudly.