Baby Talk

Early Language Facilitation: 3 facts for parents and guardians

This article is about what aspects are important in the 1st year of life to establish a successful interaction between you and your child:

I explain how you can help your child understand language,
You learn why it is so important to have a shared focus and,
I write about why gestures are closely related to language development and how you can use them with your little ones.

Number 1: Baby Talk

For the children to keep their attention on us, we learn early on to adjust our way of speaking to our babies. I didn’t recognize my husband when he started talking to our children. Where had that deep, sonorous male voice gone? Now it rang in my ears when Frank started babbling to Ragnar, using:

– High notes/pitch changes

– Long pauses

– Many repetitions

– Slow speech

– Words appropriate for children

These are characteristics that make up so-called Baby Talk. Other terms you can find in the literature are Motherese or Parentese.

But why do we do this at all? One reason is, we want to show our babies that we want to interact with them and reply to their signals. In the beginning, we respond to every snort and burp, we imitate utterances, make intense eye contact and combine it with lots of cuddles. The child, in turn, looks at us spellbound and “responds” with snorts, smiles, gurgles. So-called turn-taking occurs. This means that one person does something, and the other reacts to it.

These reactions to each other, which do not yet have a direct purpose or specific intent, are called protoconversations. They are important for learning how to communicate. They are also of great importance in building a relationship with each other.

In so-called still-face experiments, parents have been asked not to respond to their children’s attempts to interact. Results have shown that children expect a response from their counterpart and react with stress signals (e.g., crying, screaming) if they do not receive feedback. It was also observed that children tried to communicate less after a while (see Liszkowski, 2015, among others).

An example of such an experiment can be found in the following YouTube video (minute 0.33 to 3.22). The explanation is in English. However, you don’t need to understand what is said because even if you only look at the child’s reactions, you can see what influence the mother’s communication behaviour has on the child.

On the other hand, we use Baby Talk to help our children. It is a challenge for our babies to pick out words from the constant stream of speech. In addition, the child must understand the meaning of utterances. A really exhausting task! It is helpful if the utterances are short and important words are emphasized and repeated.

Number 2: Joint Attention

Joint attention is so important because it creates a common framework for communication. It is also an important foundation for language development (Clarke, 2014).

But who hasn’t experienced this: trying to get a person’s attention. Children are often very adept at ignoring us. Especially when they are asked to turn their focus to a specific thing. Sometimes they are so absorbed in one thing that they block out everything else. And then it is also good to leave them alone so that they can devote themselves fully to a task. Unless there is time pressure or a need for action, e.g., because danger is imminent.

Lack of interest can also be a reason why the child does not listen. Motivation is again an important factor here. Therefore, it is advisable to consider how joint attention can be built up. Otherwise, even the most well-intentioned offers of play or conversation can fail.

This can be very frustrating for parents. I know this from myself. Sometimes I bring the most wonderful play materials (in my opinion) and then I sit there miserably when my two rascals skilfully ignore me and unpack the same puzzle for the 100th time.

So, it’s always up to us to weigh up when we try to inspire the children (for something new) or pick up on what has the greatest appeal for them. The important thing is that we get into joint action and turn to something together. It doesn’t matter what kind of games or materials. The invitation to interact can be verbal or non-verbal. We can say directly what we want or ask for a reaction through looks, facial expressions or (pointing) gestures.

Now that we finally have the attention of our loved ones, what then? It’s important that our childen can keep shifting their attention between us and the object. For example, sometimes they look at the police car and sometimes at us to see what we are doing or saying. Then they turn back to the police car. And that brings us to our next point, triangulation.

Triangulation: That’s what we use when we look at something together with our conversation partner. Here’s an example from everyday life: my husband calls out with a beaming smile, “Look at this!” I stop writing and look at him, look at the watermelon and say, “Yum, finally melon season again, chop it up please.”

We focus our attention on the person who wants to talk to us. Then we look at the object to be communicated about. Sometimes we look at the person, sometimes at the object. If we trace our gazes, we will get a triangle, that’s why we talk about triangulating.

Successful communication occurs when children simultaneously look at something, “say” something themselves (e.g., squeak) and their interlocutors respond directly (e.g. Gillion et al., 2013, Donnellan et al. 2020). Scientific studies show that such situations have a positive effect on language development.

The 3 studies by Donnellan and colleagues (2020) looked at the pre-linguistic communication of almost one-year-olds. In the 1st study, the researchers found that the children specifically coordinated gestures, vocalisations and glances to their guardians in order to communicate with them. In the second study, they investigated whether there was a connection between these targeted communication attempts and later vocabulary size. And indeed! They were the most important predictors of vocabulary size in the second year of life. In the 3rd study, Donnellan and colleagues found that parents were also more likely to respond to these communication attempts and talk to the children. The combination of children’s communication attempts and parental responses was by far the best predictor of later vocabulary size. The studies thus underline: children learn words better when parents respond to their children’s gestures, looks and utterances with appropriate language (Baby Talk!).

A simple example of such an exchange could be: The baby squeals, points to his favourite red ball and looks at grandma. She reacts immediately and says: “Oh yes, there’s your red ball. The red ball, yay. I’ll roll the ball to you. Here it is.”

Number 3: Gestures and why they are so helpful

Some people gesticulate like mad, others less so. Which group do you belong to?

Apart from the fact that we use our hands more or less depending on our personality: gestures are an important tool in communicating. We can distinguish between iconic gestures, deictic gestures, beats, emblems and hand signs (see Lüke et al. 2011). Phew, so many technical words, but don’t worry. They only describe differences in how and why we use our hands. I would like to discuss the two most important ones here because they are particularly important during language development:

  1. Iconic gesture: an icon is a mapping or copy. Hence, an iconic gesture depicts an object or action. They help to better describe what is being said. For example, when we are standing in front of an enclosure in the wildlife park and we want to say that the deer has big antlers, we raise our arms and use our hands to model the antlers.
  2. Deictic gestures: deictic gestures make a reference to something. This can be a person, an object, a place, an action, or direction. Deictic gestures are mostly pointing gestures.

I was happy when my children started using gestures. This way I could better understand what they actually wanted from me. For example, when the finger moved in the direction of the Lego Duplo box, I knew at least roughly what Ragnar had in mind.

Children quickly learn that they can convey meaning with gestures and expect a reaction from their interlocutor. Conversely, they understand that a gesture is associated with an intention or that one wants to refer to something (Tomasello, Carpenter & Liszkowski, 2007, among others). This is an important preliminary stage in language development. And so, several studies show that gestures are an important factor (predictor) for later language development. This means that the quantity and quality of gestures influence early language acquisition (see among others Colonnesi et al., 2010; McGillion et al., 2017, Rohlfing et al., 2017).

Therefore, it makes sense to incorporate gestures into everyday life. There are entire parent training programmes that teach such language-accompanying gestures (see, among others, the KUGEL programme for children with developmental delays). But you can also think about which gestures make sense to you and would make communication easier for the little ones.

We mainly had 2 frequently used gestures, one for eating (fingertips together and hand to mouth) and one for sleeping (flat hand to ear and head tilted to the side). This meant that two basic needs could be communicated gesturally :-). Otherwise, I always tried to accompany my speech with gestures (e.g. “Do you want to be picked up?” and swinging my arms from the bottom to the top). But there are also many funny songs or rhymes that incorporate gestures (we used to sing “the wheels of the bus” and “5 little fishes” for hours).

Do you use gestures at home? If so, what are they? Which ones have worked well for you and which ones have your children been able to do well?


So, to summarise the most important take-home messages once again:

Even if it doesn’t make sense at first, chat with your children as much as possible. Use Baby Talk. You may think it’s dumb, but your kids love it!
Be attentive and responsive to your child’s attempts to communicate. A shared focus (triangulating) is important.
The use of gestures facilitates communication and provides a good strategy, especially when children can only speak a few words.

If you want to know more about how you can support your children and what we did with our children, listen to our podcast Logopädie kompakt (Episode 4) – that’s in German though.

And my next blog will be about language support and how you can specifically help your children in everyday life to understand the meaning of things/actions and to expand their vocabulary.

Well then, with the catchy tune “five little fishes” in my head, I say: take care, stay healthy and cheerful!

Yours Blanca


Clarke, E. (2014). Pragmatics in acquisition. Journal of Child Language. 41(Supplement S1): 105-116.

Colonnesi, C., Stams, G. J. J. M., Koster, I., & Noom, M. J. (2010). The relation between pointing and language development: A meta-analysis. Developmental Review, 30(4), 352-366. doi:10.1016/j.dr.2010.10.00

Donnellan, E., Bannard, C., McGillion, M. L., Slocombe, K. E., & Matthews, D. (2020). Infants’ intentionally communicative vocalizations elicit responses from caregivers and are the best predictors of the transition to language: A longitudinal investigation of infants’ vocalizations, gestures and word production. Developmental Science, 23(1), e12843. doi:

Liszkowski, U. (2015). Kommunikative und sozial-kognitive Voraussetzungen des Spracherwerbs. Handbuch Spracherwerb und Sprachentwicklungsstörungen – Kleinkindphase. S. Ringmann and J. Siegmüller. München, Elsevier: 27-38.

Lüke, C., Rohlfing, K., & Stenneken, P. (2011). Gebärden und kommunikative Mitteilung bei Kindern mit umschriebener Sprachentwicklungsstörung. Sprache · Stimme · Gehör, 35(04), e149-e157. doi:10.1055/s-0031-1287816

McGillion, M., Herbert, J. S., Pine, J., Vihman, M., dePaolis, R., Keren-Portnoy, T., & Matthews, D. (2017). What paves the way to conventional language? The predictive value of babble, pointing, and socioeconomic status. Child Development, 88(1), 156-166. doi:10.1111/cdev.12671

Rohlfing, K. J., Grimminger, A., & Lüke, C. (2017). An interactive view on the development of deictic pointing in infancy. Frontiers in Psychology, 8. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01319

Tomasello, M., Carpenter, M. & Liszkowski, U. (2007). A new look at infant pointing. Child Development 78(3): 705-722.

List item
List item
List item
Scroll to Top