Babies Come Into the World Ready To Learn Language

Parenting September 18, 2012 Print Friendly and PDF
Image:Jitp_j0202038.jpgBy three months of age your baby is already experimenting with making different vowel sounds.But how does baby actually learn language?

By three months of age your baby is already experimenting with making different vowel sounds like “Ahhh” and “Oooh.” And by six months babies start babbling or making long strings of consonant-vowel sound combinations, such as “babababa” or “mamamama.” But how does baby actually learn language?

“Babies learn language through their everyday experiences with parents, not through lessons,” says University of Wisconsin-Extension child development specialist Dave Riley. “Research shows that parents who talk more with their babies have babies who talk more and learn language better.”

How parents and other adults talk with babies makes a difference. Most adults raise the pitch of their voice, speak slowly using simple phrases, and repeat words. This way of speaking is called “child-directed speech” or “parentese”. Speaking this way helps focus baby’s attention and makes it easier for you and baby to communicate, so your baby learns language better.

baby grasping fingers

Parents help baby learn language when they imitate or repeat the sounds their baby makes. When baby hears you repeat his words this excites him and encourages him to keep practicing.

Letting baby “take turns” in your conversations also promotes language development. Put baby on your lap facing you. Lean toward baby, smile, and talk cheerfully. Pause and give baby a chance to respond. If baby makes a sound, repeat it back to her. Play “turn taking” games with baby. Blow air on baby’s tummy and wait for her smile or giggle before repeating the game.

Other ways to help baby learn language include: describing whatever you and baby are doing; labeling things at home and on outings; and expanding on things by adding more information.

For example, when you are dressing baby talk about how you put on his shirt – over his head – and put on his pants - first one leg and then the other leg. At the grocery store point out and talk about the different foods you put in the grocery cart – “we are getting four yellow bananas and five red apples.” If baby points and says “doggie” you might say, “that’s a big brown doggie and the doggie is wagging his tail.”

“It really helps to talk about whatever baby is interested in,” explains Carol Ostergren, University of Wisconsin-Extension child development specialist. “When you and your baby are focused on the same object or activity - what is called “joint attention” - this helps provide visual cues for whatever you’re talking about, which makes it easier for baby to learn words.”

Reading to your baby also helps baby learn language, and makes baby feel good about books and reading. Be sure to select durable books made out of cardboard, cloth or plastic, since babies may enjoy chewing on the books as much as looking at the pictures. Select books with large, colorful pictures and pleasing rhymes and rhythms. Point to pictures and name things. But stop reading when baby loses interest.

“Remember, baby is learning language when you talk with her about the routine, everyday things you and she do together,” says Ostergren. “You don’t need special teaching tools, like flash cards, to help baby learn language. You are more effective – and its more fun – to make language learning a part of your everyday activities.”


For more information on helping your young child learn language, check out the Parenting Future Readers newsletters at the University of Wisconsin-Extension parenting newsletter website:


Author: Carol Ostergren


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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.