By the time your child begins speaking, her receptive language development—what she hears and understands—is already well under way. Receptive language is often described as one of three areas of language, along with expressive language (expressing thoughts, feelings, ideas and concepts) and pragmatic, or social, language (relating to others, including understanding and using nonverbal cues).
What are Receptive Language Skills?
Receptive language skills allow us to make sense of and respond to the information we hear and see. Children who have trouble with receptive language struggle to understand words and concepts, answer questions, follow instructions, comprehend stories, and retell events.
Your baby gains receptive language skills through:
• Routines: She understands that when you give her a bath, put on her pajamas, and sing a lullaby it means you are preparing her for sleep.
• Visual Information: She associates you preparing a bottle with being fed.
• Sounds and Words: She connects the jingle of your car keys with leaving the house. She learns that the name of the family cat is a label for the little furry creature in the house.
• Concepts: She learns the meaning of concepts like size, shape, color and location.
• Grammar: She develops an understanding that words can be used differently to express different things: Cat means one cat, and cats means more than one cat.
• Written Information: This begins with finding meaning in pictures, like seeing a picture of a dog and understanding that it’s a dog. Eventually this will include reading and understanding words and symbols.
Ways to Support Your Baby’s Receptive Language Development
Talking to your baby in engaging, meaningful ways is important for many areas of her development, including receptive language. A famous study looked at children growing up in professional, working-class and poor families and found that at age 3 the children from the professional families had heard an average of 30 million more words than those from the families on welfare. The children who heard more words had better overall language skills and success in school. The takeaway? No matter your level of education, talking to your baby as much as possible is one of the best ways to nurture her receptive and overall language skills.
Label & Describe
The more you can label and describe things, the better! At mealtime you can comment on the food and her actions: “That’s a blueberry. You’re eating blueberries. Are they squishy and cold?” During bath time: “I’m washing your arm. Now I’m washing your belly. Look at the soap, it’s making bubbles!”
If your baby points to a ball, instead of simply saying, “That’s a ball!” you can say: “That’s a blue ball! It’s under the table.”
Follow Your Baby’s Lead
Research shows that if you talk to your baby about things she’s focused on, her language learning is heightened. Pay attention to what she looks at, points at, and chooses to play with and talk to her about those things.
Reading is great for your little one’s receptive language, as it gives meaning to words, pictures, symbols and concepts.
Singing and other musical activities have been linked to better language skills. Your baby will love the classics, like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and she’ll love silly songs you make up, too.
Give Simple Directions
As your baby gains the ability to do things independently give her simple directions to follow. For example: “Please put this in the trash.” Or, when getting dressed: “Can you bring me your socks?”
If you’re curious about exactly what your baby understands and when, check out our article about receptive language milestones.
In the speech section of our BabySparks program, you can find dozens of brief, instructional videos to guide you in using the strategies described above.