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How to help your young child to build his language

In this month of January, in around thirty schools in Paris, Lyon and Bordeaux, the language workshops, created ten years ago by Elyette Joubert, former teacher and vice-president of the School for European Grandparents ( EGPE), are back in service, in the classes of small, medium and large sections of kindergarten, after a long interruption due to the health crisis. Fifty volunteers work in pairs, during school time, with groups of four students, with the objective of helping those who have difficulty speaking.

→ INVESTIGATION. The language of children, a top priority in kindergarten

Many of these young children speak a language other than French at home. Others come from French-speaking families where verbal communication is limited. The parents, the big brother, speak little to the child, understand him without him needing to express himself or finish a sentence for him. This type of situation, which we encounter in all social circles, does not encourage the toddler to develop his language.

First words eagerly awaited

In a benevolent setting, children are encouraged to express themselves, to find the words, to reformulate. “We give them time to grope, they are listened to and learn to listen to the words of the other”, indicates Elyette Joubert. Parents, too, are mobilized. “We explain our approach to them, tell them how important it is to give your child the opportunity to talk, to tell, whether on the way to school, in the bath or while playing at the dinette. “

The child is a speaking being, and usually the baby’s first words are eagerly awaited. He will say first ” dad “ or ” mom ” ? “Language is a complex function which is part of the overall development of the person, it requires time from the child and patience from the parents”, emphasizes speech therapist Anne Chevillot. Already, in utero, he hears the surrounding noises, the voice of his mother or his father. At birth, he communicates in his own way, through cries and tears, to say ” I’m hungry “ or “My diaper is full”. The beginnings of oral communication are put in place with the first babbling and twittering. Dialogue with parents intensifies, accompanied by smiles and sound intonations of all kinds.

Up to 4 months, a child can distinguish almost all sounds

“Parents should be aware of their baby’s wonderful communication skills”, continues the speech therapist, recalling that his phonatory apparatus (1) would allow him to distinguish, approximately until the age of 4 months, almost all the sounds of all existing languages. This is why we say, during this period, that the baby is a “citizen of the world”. Subsequently, this device will format itself using only the sounds heard, namely those of its own mother tongue, which it can produce little by little.

“Language is a marker of the child’s personality and his future”, emphasizes pediatric neurologist Catherine Billard. Parents must adapt to the pace of development of their little one (no need, therefore, to compare him to his little cousin of the same age), while being attentive to possible warning signs. “An unusual language path can be a sign of a hearing problem. In principle, a hearing test is performed when the child is born. It can also be the mark of autistic disorders. But, before the age of 3, there is no reason to worry ”, provides the neuropediatrician.

The more sounds there are, the more it retains

To help the child to build his language, all the specialists are unanimous: it is necessary to speak to him from the first months of his life. At the beginning, we will combine the means of communication to “do at the same time as we say”. Accompany the gesture by speaking, for example describing orally the different stages of the preparation of the soup that you are cooking. As Bruno Germain, a linguist at the University of Paris-Descartes, explains, the toddler “processes the sounds” of the language he hears: he recognizes them, like musical notes on a piano keyboard. The more sounds there are, the more the child will remember. After his 12 months, he “processes words”: he makes the connection between chains of sounds and meaning. When he hears ” baby bottle “, this one is coming. When he begins to speak, putting words together will allow him to be more precise in his intention: “Want a bottle. “

→ READ. Big questions for toddlers

Around 2 years old, the child should be able to use a hundred words, sometimes more, depending on his environment. And be able, between 20 and 30 months, to make short sentences. “ The child begins to be sensitive to respecting his turn to speak. The adult should not interrupt him and the child is offended if he does not react to what he says. We are in a real exchange ”, specifies the linguist.

Talk to him normally

If the child is in a “language bath”, he appropriates it, he adapts his words to his needs. Bruno Germain recommends that parents be “Benevolent and rigorous”. “When a child speaks, we give ourselves the time to listen to him and we value him”, advocates the linguist, while warning against a “Ill-suited benevolence”. Thus, he explains, we are not doing our child a service by ending his sentence or speaking for him as soon as we think we have understood what he means. Also to be banned from speaking “beast” or “baby”. We normally talk to him as to an elder or an adult. In the same way, we avoid validating a bad pronunciation (“I misheard it, it doesn’t say so, try to say it again”) and you don’t choose simpler words just because you’re talking to a little one. On the contrary, it is at this age that the child learns and retains best.

Singing a rhyme, miming, animating a puppet, reading a story… any action is an act of learning language. Make sure, however, that the reading time is followed by speaking time. Making the text an object of exchange and of words will later promote the child’s entry into written language.


Inequalities weigh on words

According to a 2019 study conducted by INED and INSEE, socio-economic inequalities have an impact on language acquisition before the age of 3.

On the number of words mastered, there may be a difference of 10 words between one belonging to a wealthy family and the other from a disadvantaged family.

While on average, around the age of 2, children know 74 words out of the 100 available, those whose mother has a diploma below the BEPC know 4 less. And those whose mother has a higher education diploma than the Bac + 2 level know 6 more.


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