A rich language environment in the early years of childhood is like fertilizer for early brain development.
You’ve heard of “Build-A-Bear®“? Well, this early exposure is more like “Build-A-Brain” These early and consistent auditory experiences with loved ones build the neurological framework and foundation for later academic achievement.
Vocabulary development is only one part of language development……
……..but it’s an important one.
So, how do we push vocabulary development? Well, some try to drill it through memorization exercises. This works well for SAT prep but not so much for building a first language with young children. Vocabulary grows much stronger and faster when it’s developed within natural conversation about authentic experiences.
A child becomes a life-long vocabulary learner when he/she grows up thinking about and figuring out what words mean from context rather than just being told the definition.
This happens when the people in the child’s environment spark curiosity in sounds and words from a young age.
It’s a good thing we don’t have to teach language word by word. Just thinking about growing a child’s language that way is daunting. Fortunately for the vast majority of children more natural learning patters can work.
Despite the age old use of flash cards or the ads for electronic apps there is no better way to learn words and grammar than through verbal interactions with loved ones and listening to story books read aloud.
Most parents would probably be surprised to know the degree of value that making conscious effort towards vocabulary enrichment carries. We often take language development for granted.
However, it’s not only the children with delays who can benefit from enriched vocabulary environments.
Where do we begin? How do we informally “teach” words? First let’s look at different types of words which might help determine which words to teach.
Content specific words can be very basic such as pig, cow, hay when talking about a farm. They can also be much more complex or “rare” words such as agriculture, agronomy, or cultivation.
Obviously if you are with a toddler at a petting zoo you will naturally use the animal names again and again. The nouns and animal names tend to be learned more easily than descriptive words or other grammatical structures. However, if you are a child with a hearing loss or language delay there may actually be more important words for the child’s everyday needs. More generalized words such as “more, give, put and slowly” certainly would be used more during daily routines such as breakfast or getting ready to leave the house than the words pig or cow.
Often adults trying to grow their child’s language naturally tend to put their focus on nouns. These are labels for objects. Nouns are concrete and in comparison to other parts of speech they are learned more easily. Higher language requires comprehension of the bits and chunks of meaning that fall between the nouns.
To provide a truly rich language learning environment an adult needs to spotlight beyond the nouns.
We can spotlight words by using them often and in different sentences which adds redundancy to the meaning. We can also use intonation and melody to draw auditory attention to specific words or grammatical structures.
Words like prepositions in, on, through, over, above, between, beside carry a lot of meaning and at times may need direct instruction. The same words used in different situations may be even more complex when they are used in phrases that aren’t related to spatial concepts at all such as “ON Wednesday” or “IN a week”.
Descriptive words (adjectives and adverbs) are endless and often have many synonyms. True mastery of language involves understanding of the slight but different shades of meaning. (bothered, annoyed, mad, angry, furious) or (cute pretty beautiful, gorgeous). Native speakers of a language are far less likely to use the wrong shade of a word as compared to someone who learned the language as an adult.
Verbs also have slight differences of meaning ie, cut vs. slice. As our language matures we use more precise words. Think about how a baby learns ruff ruff and then it becomes “dog” then puppy then shepherd, then pure bred.
We get more specific and also more specialized as we move up the language ladder.
Most of everyday speech uses the same few thousand words. Books tend to use more colorful and varied words that use more precision and then when you become a specialist or study in more depth you learn very specific words that the general public would be less likely to know.
If you’re not careful you could end up using the same small core level of vocabulary in casual conversation when there were opportunities to enhance it with rich and varied vocabulary exposure.
Try to use some new words in every interaction you have with your child each day. Once you push yourself to use more varied vocabulary words it becomes easier to pull yourself out of the rut of familiar words.