Spotlight Between burping, cooing and crying, infants play with words. It’s not just babbling, it’s their language.
“Infants are brilliant—they’re geniuses,” says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, author of How Babies Talk. “Children learn language before they can tie their own shoes, be trusted alone anywhere or go to a fancy restaurant.”
Baby talk is the topic at the new interactive Chicago Children’s Museum exhibit, “Now You’re Talking!,” which, unlike other museum exhibits, is aimed at parents. The exhibit, based on research from Chicago’s Erikson Institute graduate school of early childhood development, educates parents about children’s language development.
“We wanted to look at the whole family, not just the child,” says the museum’s Leah Weatherspoon. “We’ve got a captive audience. This is a resource for parents.”
It teaches parents how to stimulate children’s language skills—key for learning to talk, experts say. (If children haven’t said any words by 18 months, don’t put words together by 2½ years or consistently refuse eye contact, it may be time to check with a pediatrician or therapist, says Hirsh-Pasek, director of the Infant Language Laboratory at Temple University in Philadelphia and guest speaker at the exhibit opening.)
“If we’re responsive and we’re sensitive to what the children are doing and their goo-goos and their baa-baas, we can make a difference,” says Hirsh-Pasek.
Kids have fun, too
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing for kids to do. Younger kids may not understand the details as they wander through gateways marking four stages of language development, but they can converse at a dinner table or chronicle their first words. There are also speech bubbles, quizzes and puzzles.
“This is great, this is something I’d have in my classroom,” says Chicago preschool teacher and mom Fran Babiez, who lives in the city’s Logan Square neighborhood, as she pages through a laminated picture book. “They’d touch every single picture and say, ‘Eyes’ and ‘Foot.’ “
Babiez also likes how the exhibit urges parents to bring language into everyday situations such as when driving to the store or while washing dishes. “Talking all the time with your kid is so good,” Babiez says.
Her daughter Mary, 11, prefers “WaterWays,” the museum’s water tables next door. But at the speech exhibit, Mary likes the dinner table, which has silly dinner conversation suggestions on the plates.
The living room area, which has two aqua and lime-green sofas is also a nice place for families with toddlers and small children to relax.
“You get tired walking through the museum,” says Wheeling dad Srinivasan, who stopped at the exhibit with his kids, 4-year-old Sahana and 2-year-old Sudarshan.
Four stages and stations
While kids explore, parents can learn about the four stages of language development at the four different stations of the exhibit.
At the first station, called Baby Talk, parentese—the sing-songy, goofy tone of voice many parents use with babies—crackles over the radio in different languages including Spanish and English. These silly baby voices are universal and can help infants decipher language sounds, says Hirsh-Pasek. “It makes a difference, an attention-grabbing difference,” she says.
Some parents prefer to treat babies as adults. “I don’t like baby talk. I don’t think that helps at all,” says Kim Kivens, a Minnesota mom visiting with her daughter, Lily, 6. She believes that repeating words or finishing sentences is more helpful to her kids.
The second station, Words, Words, Words, explains how toddlers match words to concepts. There the Kivens wrote down Lily’s first word, kitty—which initially sounded more like tee-tee—in a book.
The next section, Talking by the Rules, marvels at how older toddlers speak grammatically before they understand grammar rules. A toddler, for example, might say, “I goed to the store.” He is showing that things in the past end with “ed.”
“He’s using the rule,” Hirsh-Pasek says. “We as adults just don’t understand that.”
The final station is Consider the Possibilities, with the message: “The more you talk to your kids, the better.” Children learn vocabulary from their parents. “Ordinary moments in our lives are rich language opportunities,” says Hirsh-Pasek.
And that’s what 2-year-old Thomas and Arthur Keegan explore as they play with the exhibit’s phones. “Hi Daddy,” Thomas yells into the phone as he grins. Arthur, who is from LaGrange, is stationed at another phone a few feet away and says “Hi” back.
“Bye-bye!” Thomas says. He hangs up for three seconds then picks up the phone again. “Hi Daddy!”
Diana Oleszczuk is a student at the Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and a Chicago Parent intern. She also works at The Project on Child Development, a language development lab at Northwestern.