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Language Development through Sensitive Mother-Child Information Exchange

A newborn baby reacts sensitively to the mother's cooing and rhythm of her voice as though s/he is being pulled in. I have discussed in a previous message how the infant slowly adjusts his/her hand movements to adjust to the rhythms of the mother, called "entrainment", and how this eventually leads to the development of language. Today, I would like to expand on this and discuss, in more detail, the development that continues after the first signs of communication appear.

The baby must be nursed for him/her to develop. When being nursed, the baby sucks on the nipple and there is a definite pattern of sucking and resting which only the baby can control. It almost seems as though the resting action of the baby seems to be somewhat of an expectation for the mother to react. Naturally, when the baby is resting, the mother turns her attention to the baby and rocks the baby while perhaps speaking in a soft voice or imitating the baby's coos. If the mother is nursing by bottle, the mother will shift the nipple of the bottle in the baby's mouth or juggles the bottle a little, similarly paying attention to the baby. The baby, satisfied, resumes sucking.

Around the eighth week, the baby will begin to demand this juggling and attention from the mother by repeatedly coming away from the nipple and making cooing sounds. This repetition of the baby's actions and the mother's reactions are very important functions for the mother-child interaction process.

The baby's cooing will become more distinct and active by the twelfth week and the mother's imitations will also begin to sound more playful. If the mother does not react to her baby's first cooing, the baby will coo two or three times in succession to get the mother's attention.

The mother's "answering" of the baby's cooing is quite natural and is called the "echo call". This interaction is critical in the development of language in the child. The imitation of each other is the first step of this social interaction.

At around three or four months of age, the mother's cooing echoes are not words, but resembles the sounds made by the baby. However, this collection of vowel sounds are not just random sounds the mother is making, but rather, imitations of the sounds the baby is making. In turn, the baby soon begins to imitate the sounds of the mother, until at around four months, the baby is said to be able to imitate the mother at about a fifty percent accuracy rate. Of course, this is an indication of the mother's love for her child, which the child is most certainly able to recognize. This fills the infant with the "joie de vivre" that I have talked about in previous messages, and these cooing sounds are referred to as indications of pleasure.

The first cooings between mother and child begin to develop into words as the mother and child continue to communicate in such a way and the child begins to cognitively recognize certain words with their corresponding objects. The mother and child interact naturally in this way according to the various settings of daily life. The mother, unconsciously, speaks in an exaggerated tone and with a higher intonation than she would with her husband or any other adults. This exaggerated and comforting speech is called "motherese". Although the name motherese implies that the mother is doing the speaking, fathers often use the same tone of voice when talking to their babies and thus, this is not a gender specific "language", but rather a "language" used with babies by adults.

During these interactions, the mother and baby seem to be in a similar state of mind and are sharing some kind of important cognitive as well as emotional information. Each word voiced by the mother, is then, absorbed by the baby and eventually is learned.

Thus, the first rhythmical exchanges of sucking and rocking are critical in the development of cooing and imitating between the mother and the child. The child is being initiated into the world where warmth, communication and exchange of information are the foundations of personal relations, first in the family and eventually in the larger society.
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