Space to Grow: Silence Promotes Vocabulary Development
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By Amanda Holliday
Silence can be uncomfortable for some people. When we are in a conversation, there is a certain flow between the talkers. Comedians are known for their timing, which can make or break a joke. There’s a tempo to our words. Culture plays a large role in how fast or slow a conversation takes place.
But what happens when we try to fill all the airspace when we talk with infants? Often adults will talk continuously to a child or ask rapid-fire questions without giving her space to respond. It’s a problem most people don’t recognize because it feels wrong to have silence. Babies are inundated with speech and are given little to no time to process what they are hearing. Their brains are just starting to understand the sounds used to form words—including how the pitch of your voice goes up when you ask a question—and before they can process what was just said, they are faced with more adult talk.
When you spend most of your day talking and singing to your little one, you are positively promoting his vocabulary development. Telling him a story, reading your grocery list, singing as you change his diaper, and reading books are all great ways to help your baby develop his oral language. But pauses to give your baby a moment to respond can also help him.
Try this with your infant: ask one question. Anything. “How are you today?” “Do you need to poop?” It doesn’t matter what the question is—just ask one question and then be silent. Count to 10 slowly in your head. Watch what happens next.
Most babies will respond when there is silence! They may coo, babble, or say “aaa.” That is their way of answering your question. The reason to leave silence is to give their hardworking brains time to process all the information they are receiving from you before they can formulate a verbal response. While it is important to talk and sing to them throughout the day, it’s also important to leave silent space for your little one to respond.
When you sing songs over and over to your baby, she begins to look for pattern in the sounds she is hearing. Her brain will expect certain sounds to follow each other. If you leave out the last word of the tune, she will help finish your song.
For instance, after singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” over and over to your baby, sing “Twinkle, twinkle, little star. How I wonder what you __.” Don’t say “are,” just be silent. Many older infants will make a sound in this silence because their brains are thinking, “Wait, that’s not the pattern. There’s another sound missing. I’ll make it.” It may sound like a coo or babble to you, but to them it is the end of your song!
Conversations with your infant that include silent pauses actually help to grow their vocabulary development. While they are still a while away from chatting in full sentences, their brains are laying all the foundations needed for future speech. Keep talking with them, keep singing with them, and keep loving them as they grow!
Amanda Holliday, M.Ed., enjoys writing early childhood focused articles and working as a project-based curriculum writer. After teaching in infant-preschool classroom settings and becoming a mom herself, she began her own business, Bouncing Bambini, focused on creating healthy and happy families while inspiring a lifelong love of music and movement!