Mother Tongue: How Parents Teach Speech

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This Mother’s Day, say “thank you” to your mum – and remind yourself that she taught you how to say that. Remember that every sound she made at you, no matter how silly or stern, eventually added up to you being able to talk. That’s a big gift. One that you might not fully appreciate – especially if your mother tongue and home country languages differ. How do you ever pay that back?


For most, the joy of being your mum is payment enough. Aren’t mums just the best?


How Babies Learn to Talk

Babies are strange little creatures. Helpless, chubby, tiny things that make noises nobody understands. But they’re the most precious thing in the world. Loved deeply and protected fiercely, they spend their time almost exclusively in the company of their parents – gurgling, babbling and squeaking (if they aren’t screaming, that is).


And parents babble, gurgle and squeak back. At about three months old, babies have a varied palette of cooing and vowel sounds developing. This baby talk is very cute and sometimes extremely funny – but it’s actually a fundamental learning tool for babies.


This is their first “call and response”, their first cue to speak – their first conversation. It’s pretty complicated stuff for a tiny, months-old person to get the hang of. But they do it so well, and parents reward that participation with attention and affection – which keeps the baby going.


Developing Speech

As baby grows into a toddler, their vocabulary explodes. As they start saying more difficult words, toddlers often struggle enunciating, or might muddle their speech and substitute some consonants for easier sounds. And parents don’t correct them – in fact, they imitate them.


They don’t scold them for saying “lellow” instead of “yellow”, or “fank oo” instead of “thank you”. They’ll just say it back. This is really important, because it gives a child the confidence to speak and to try saying new words.


This is probably the only learning experience that a person ever has that encourages mistakes and even replicates their mistakes. It’s an environment that lets speech thrive, with no judgement and full support. This is why just about everyone with the ability to speak has mastered at least one language in their life.


It’s the greatest gift we’re likely to be given in our lives, one that pretty much all of us take for granted. Language is not intrinsic – it’s learned, and it requires exposure to culture, society and most importantly – parent figures.


What happens when that’s taken away from a child?


Wild Child – Feral Children with no Speech

These stories are heartbreaking, but thankfully uncommon. Some children who’ve been abandoned, abused or forgotten about have had to grow up without language.


There are several notable cases, but the most poignant, disturbing and well-studied is that of Genie – the American girl kept in near total isolation from birth to 13 years old.


She was eventually rescued, when her mother (who was vision impaired and reliant on her abusive husband) made a run for it. Genie was estimated to be just 6 years old when she was brought to authorities.


She couldn’t speak or communicate in any way, because the crucial window for language acquisition had passed – but as she was studied, rehabilitated and nurtured, she began developing language skills.


Her speech and vocabulary never matured though, and she became more dependent on sign language in which, by comparison, she excelled.


It’s reported that she now lives a simple lifestyle in care, and is happy. While she doesn’t communicate much verbally, her signing and nonverbal communication are excellent.


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