Cognitive scientists at MIT found that back-and-forth conversations between an adult and a child appear to change the child’s brain. Even if your child isn’t talking yet, you can still have a conversation with them. It goes something like this: your baby gurgles or your toddler says something in gibberish, then you respond with language and eye contact. Pause for them to “answer” and then continue the back and forth.
In the MIT study, the number of these conversational “turns,” accounted for a large portion of the differences in brain physiology and language skills, regardless of parental income or education.
“You can talk to a child until you’re blue in the face, but if you’re not engaging with the child and having a conversational duet about what the child is interested in, you’re not going to give the child the language processing skills that they need. If you can get the child to participate, not just listen, that will allow the child to have a better language outcome.” says Roberta Golinkoff, a professor of education at the University of Delaware School of Education.
How to have a back and forth conversation with your child:
- Fill in the blanks While reading to your child, let them fill in familiar sounds and phrases: “a cow says ____” or “twinkle twinkle, little ____”
- Spark a conversation Point to things you see as you go about your day: “oh look, there is a bird in the sky. Can you say ‘bird?’”
- Build on what they say with more words If your child says “dog,” respond with more words. “I hear a dog; that dog has a loud bark”
- Sing in the bath or the car Sing nursery rhymes or songs like these and invite your child to join
- Repeat their sounds Before your child is able to speak words, you can converse by mimicking the sounds they make
- Use gestures and signs to illustrate what you’re saying For example, you can tap your lips when you say “it’s time to eat”
- Get animated Your child will be more likely to tune into a “conversation” with you if you exaggerate what you are saying with gestures, facial expressions, and voice variation