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Style Magazine

Language Barrier

Dec 29, 2009 08:59AM ● By Wendy Sipple

Babies: Can they really understand us?

Could they communicate with us if we were equipped to interpret their babble or cries? Trying to understand the needs and desires of an infant ranks somewhere near the top of my list of “life’s most frustrating experiences.” Although I gained an increasing amount of knowledge and patience with each of my four babies, it always remained a challenge to pinpoint what they were thinking or feeling.

Some experts, however, say that infants can definitely communicate with us and help us understand what they want, potentially decreasing the frustration factor for both the child and the parent. And, even more interestingly, their ability to understand us goes back to their time in the womb. “Fetuses can hear during the last trimester. They learn mom’s voice very well because it reverberates through the body, and they also get it through the belly from the outside,” says Brigitte Elder, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Sierra College. “Needless to say, talking to your baby while it’s still in the womb is not silly, and talking to your baby once it is actually born is crucial.”

Also important is the way in which you talk to your infant. Using a high-pitched, sing-songy voice to exaggerate and elongate your sounds is helpful for babies and tends to capture their attention, according to Elder. “Parentese,” as this form of talking is called, is well-researched and effective, agrees Amanda Stewart Morris, an early childhood special educator and teacher of the deaf who has worked in the field for about 10 years, and with the Placer County Office of Education for over six years. She adds, though, that parents must not change the language or grammar, only the intonation and cadence of their voice. “In the first year, babies are just into listening and learning, and their brains are like sponges,” says Morris. “This time is an excellent opportunity to learn a second language, and in other countries it is common to become bilingual. This is also the case with sign language. Babies are easily able to learn these skills at this time.”

In fact, sign language has become a much-encouraged way to communicate with babies once they begin gesturing. “It’s extremely challenging for parents when babies come into the world because they cannot talk. They can only use facial expressions or cry,” says Elder. “But around six months they will start to use gestures, such as head nods and pointing. Around this time, you can teach your baby a wide range of other gestures which are important for them to express themselves.”

Sign language and expressive gestures have been proven to help bridge the gap between the crying and talking phases for a child. “The muscles needed for babies to form speech take time to develop, which makes receptive language much easier than expressive language,” says Morris. “Babies understand a lot more than they can repeat back to you. If you’re using symbolic gestures or American Sign Language (ASL), it can help bypass the frustration until they develop those muscles.”

For those interested in breaking down the language barrier with their baby, there are many learning tools now available, such as DVDs, books, workshops and playgroups. Morris recommends checking out for available resources, while Elder’s favorite site is

“Sign language empowers babies,” says Elder. “For instance, the gesture for ‘more’ is a simple one that is used widely – not just for food. More hugs, more tickles, more swinging, more reading. I really felt that I was able to see the world through my daughter’s eyes by signing.”