Learning and Development

How Babies Learn to Communicate

  • How Babies Learn to Communicate

Continuing her series on Human Tendencies, Barbara Isaacs explores our ability to communicate with and without language…

All humans are born with the unique gift of being able to communicate and use language, to share their ideas, thoughts and feelings. Montessori described this potential as the human tendency for communication. How this tendency unfolds and how our communication skills develop will depend on our temperament, culture and mother tongue, and how they are nurtured by significant adults and peers.

For Montessorians, this human tendency is manifested in the sensitive period for language. This special capacity, which is present in the first six years of life, is a ‘guide’ to mastery of not only a first language but also the acquisition of other languages if they are part of the daily life of the child. The vast body of research into acquisition of language confirms Montessori’s instinctive belief that infants are able to hear in the womb, and that they need to be surrounded by language if they are to become competent users of language as they mature. We now know that newborn babies respond to their mothers’ speech within the first day of life. We also acknowledge that our culture is transmitted through the lullabies, rhymes and stories that our parents, family and friends share with us.

When learning to speak, babies respond not only to the sounds of language but also to its rhythm and pitch. The majority will be able to utter their first words sometime around their first birthday, whilst their prime carers will be able to recognise patterns of words in their babbling several months before. During the second year of life, children’s language unfolds and blossoms as they absorb it from their environment, both in the spoken form and through non-verbal communication. In the early stages of life we communicate our feelings in the way we handle and care for babies, particularly during routines such as feeding, changing and settling to sleep. Our touch expresses our feelings of love and concern, and will be accompanied with soothing, gentle words. Our attachment behaviours are deeply rooted in the non-verbal communications between the prime carer and the child.

Montessori recognised the importance of tuning into language, and urged carers to give babies and toddlers the opportunity to hear everyday speech both inside and outside the home. As the child’s sensitive period for language unfolds, the adults’ and peers’ roles change as they scaffold, mirror, share and encourage the toddler to utter first phrases and sentences, and develop their vocabulary. Wherever possible we should model language for young children by using rich vocabulary and focusing on the correct structure of sentences.

Language-rich environments

The child’s capacity to absorb language at this stage of development is enormous, as we often witness in the language of competent two-year-olds when they first enter nursery. These children benefit from language-rich environments where the adults and peers understand their potential. Their carers name the flowers, plants, shrubs and trees in the garden or park; they describe the components of the digger or rubbish van and how they function. They ask questions that help toddlers problem solve and explore, encourage conversations and discussions, and nurture imaginations. Books do much to enhance language skills and should be on offer daily, providing opportunities to play with and explore language, and enabling the child to express thoughts and ideas.

For language to develop fully it needs to be shared – it is a tool that brings us together. But it also has the potential to separate and isolate, as is often witnessed when working with children with hearing or speech impairments, or those who do not speak the language of the country where they are living. Humans, young ones in particular, have a tremendous capacity to make themselves understood through gestures, and sign language has become a very useful communication tool for many babies.

Over a hundred years ago Montessori studied children who were brought up by animals, such as the Wild Boy of Averyon, who was also the subject of the 1960s French film. For these children, the opportunity to develop human speech is limited. They compensate by developing other skills as they adapt to their unique environment. However, when expected to integrate into society, their capacity to do so becomes limited, because they have not had these experiences early on in their lives. Current neuroscientific research demonstrates our unique sensitivity to language in the early years, which was described by Montessori at the beginning of the 20th century. Therefore it is our responsibility to nurture young children’s language as one of the key tools for their lives to come. It takes time and support for young children to develop and practise their language skills before they are expected to embark on the journey of becoming a literate human being.

Barbara Isaacs is the academic director of Montessori Centre International.