If you recall from our previous discussions, infants and mothers are uniquely predisposed to interact. A mother’s pattern of talking to her baby and the child’s response patterns reflect a unique developmental predisposition that is designed to initiate the process of acquiring the amazing gift of speech and language. We will now continue our exploration of how children learn to communicate, and in doing so let’s now turn our attention to the “conversational” side of communication.
I think you would agree that turn-taking is an integral part of having a conversation. As adults, when we engage in conversational interactions, we have learned to employ the social rules for conversational exchanges. These rules simply imply that one partner listens as the other speaks. When one is done speaking, it is then the turn of the other partner to interact. Thus a conversation is largely comprised of language-based turn-taking consisting, of back and forth exchanges on a single topic. Can you agree, in that light, that language-based turn-taking and topic maintenance are prerequisites for a meaningful conversation to take place? But, and this is important, children are not initially equipped to take turns, nor remain on a single topic. Turn-taking and topic maintenance is learned. Each is not a natural skill. With that in mind let’s consider how mothers can assist their infants in acquiring these basic skills.
As noted previously, babies are initially wired to gaze at faces, with their interest shifting to objects at 4-7 months of age. Thus when a baby initiates face to face joint focus, or later when he reaches and grasps for an object, it is helpful for the adult to do all that is possible to maintain joint interest as well as establish some form of turn-taking. This can be as simple as gently taking an object from the child and then handing it back repeatedly. During the early months, mothers can watch for their child’s responses to the adult’s vocal initiations and then determine how the child is indicating their desire to keep the turns going. One of the most important things for mothers to gauge is the number and variety of ways their child sends signals, indicating that they are seeking turn-taking, as well as how the child indicates that they want the turn-taking to continue. In this light, it barely matters what is said to the child. Remember, they are responding to the inflectional patterns and cadence of your speech. As noted previously, 4-7 word utterances, spoken with a wide inflectional pattern and an even cadence is best suited to catch and maintain your child’s interest. The easiest way to summarize these thoughts is in this manner; follow your child’s lead and do all that is possible to keep the turns going. These are the skills that translate into conversational ability as the child develops his vocabulary and begins to use words. In the 7-10 month range, typically developing children will display 2-4 turns on a single topic, before seeking something else or losing interest. When the child indicates a desire to transition to another “topic” follow their lead and repeat the process.
The suggestions provided above are important precursors to the development of a child becoming a conversational partner. Remember that topic maintenance and turn-taking lie at the core of social language. Before the acquisition of these two skills, learning words is secondary. For the most part, word usage will emerge as your child possesses the conversational skills described above.
Regardless of the age of your child, let me encourage you to frequently engage in “conversational exchanges”. Go slow, learn to “read” your child, take turns, stay on topic, and most importantly, enjoy every minute of it!
The Achieve Center blog is written by the professionals who are focused on children's mental health.