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Interacting with baby prompts language

Just when you think the culture can't get any more confusing for parents, along comes ''Baby Berlitz," what the press release describes as interactive sound books and CDs ''especially designed to stimulate language learning in infants up to 3 years old."

In a culture that increasingly capitalizes on parents' innate urges to ''do the right thing," the pitch -- give your child ''every educational edge possible before entering school" -- is likely to snag some parents. Annette Karmiloff-Smith of London, one of the leading researchers on language acquisition, has a succinct response: ''This is just a bunch of hype."

How babies learn to speak is a complicated process; even researchers don't fully understand all the mechanisms that go into it. What they do know is this:

''Babies don't learn language by having someone or something spit it out to them," says Temple University psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, one of the nation's preeminent researchers. ''They get it from another human being who is responsive and sensitive to them." Interactive books, videos, or CDs are unnecessary, inappropriate, and possibly even overstimulating. ''Some babies will just fall asleep," says Karmiloff-Smith, co-author of ''Pathways to Language" (Harvard University Press).

What we do have to do is talk, respond, and read to our babies, early and often.

To maximize the built-in edge that you have as a loving parent or caregiver:

Start talking to your baby in infancy. ''There's plenty of learning happening even before she's verbal," says Barbara Landau, language acquisition researcher at Johns Hopkins University. At 2 months, give her time to make eye contact. Smile at her even before she can return the smile. You know that singsongy way of talking to babies that you swore you'd never do? Landau says it really helps babies learn to talk; it's pleasant for them to hear and it chops the language up into manageable pieces.

Talk with your baby, not at him. Even at 4 months, give him the chance to coo back at you. Be patient. ''Sometimes, we just fill the air space too quickly. We don't give them enough chance to respond. Babies have a slower tempo than we do," says Hirsh-Pasek. Between 4 and 8 months, a baby will reciprocate. ''That's a conversation, and it happens long before words," says speech language pathologist Julie Masterson, co-author of ''Beyond Baby Talk" (Random House).

Ignore what the baby in the next crib at day care is doing. ''There is huge variability," says Hirsh-Pasek. She repeats that sentence several times during the interview. While the average baby has a first word at 12 months, some will talk at 9 months and others not until 18. Each extreme is considered within the normal range.

How do you know a word when you hear it? If it's embedded in a sentence of babble, you can't be sure, but it won't be long before the word will be spoken by itself. Repeatedly. A first word is almost always a noun, says Masterson, usually something that's in a child's immediate environment and something she has some control over. It won't be ''floor," but it could be ''light."

Look also for out-of-the-ordinary context. ''If he only uses da-da when daddy is in the room, that's OK, but not compelling," says Hirsh-Pasek. ''If he uses it when he hears daddy's car in the driveway, you have yourself a word."

Most babies' first words are approximations, li for light, do for dog. That's OK. ''Don't correct and don't imitate, no matter how cute it is," says Karmiloff-Smith. You can reinforce, though. Since a single word usually represents a whole thought, express it for her: ''Do you hear daddy's car? I do, too! Shall we greet him at the door?" Similarly, if the word is used incorrectly, rather than correct it, rephrase it. Not, ''No, that's not a dog, it's a squirrel," but, ''Did you see that squirrel run up the tree?"

And if a first word is slow to come?

For years, pediatricians and speech and language specialists counseled parents of toddlers under 18 months to ''wait and see." Today, with more early intervention available, there's a trend to seek professional help at the first sign a child is at the edges of the bell curve. There is no consensus on this, however.

In an otherwise normally developing child, many researchers and clinicians still prefer to be patient. Masterson says seeking intervention often only feeds parents' anxieties, not to mention their competitive nature. That can backfire: ''Toddlers pick up on the parents' tension." The Berlitz book to teach Spanish to 2-year-olds, for instance, can create unrealistic expectations for parents, putting undue pressure on parent and child, she says.

On the other hand, if there's a hearing impairment; if a toddler doesn't make eye contact or doesn't look in the sky when you do, just to see what you're looking at; can't problem solve when you hide a toy behind your back; isn't interested in Peek-A-Boo or Itsy Bitsy Spider; has no consonant sounds at 15 months; or is growing up in a home that is language impoverished, Masterson says, ''It's never wrong to seek input from a specialist, as long as the therapy is appropriate." (Clues that it's not: Your child throws a tantrum whenever it's time to see the therapist; withdraws or becomes uncharacteristically wild in the person's presence; or is frequently sick before or after the session.)

Jennifer Manning, infant-toddler program coordinator for Bright Horizons on the Charles, says what she looks for in a 15-month-old who is not yet talking is sociability and comprehension.

''If I say, 'Let's change your diaper,' I want to see him either coming along with me or running away," she says.

Even after 20 years of watching babblers turn into talkers, Manning was blown away to watch the process unfold in her daughter, Isabel, who is 20 months. Her first word, at 10 months, was ''alldone," and it was said with the same inflection Manning uses. Her second word was ''sidown." Manning didn't get it at first, until Isabel stood on her rocking chair, put her hands up in the air, and said ''sidown" in exactly the stern tone Manning uses.

''Babies have far more learning capacity than we realize," she says.

Consider Max von Gottberg of Cambridge, who just turned 2 1/2. He spoke his first word at 10 months (''ne-ne," for no) and ''dada" a month later. By 15 months, he had a vocabulary of six words. Now he's using descriptive words (''slow," ''fast") and asking questions: ''Did you have a nice nap, Daddy?"

That's not more or less impressive than many toddlers, except for one more thing: Max also speaks German. (Ne-ne is his version of nien.) His dad, Fred, speaks only German to Max. His mom, Antonia, speaks only English. At the dinner table, Fred speaks German to Max, and English to Antonia; Antonia speaks English to Fred and to Max; Max speaks German or English to dad but only English to mom.

Way too confusing for a young learner? ''Not at all, as long as each parent consistently speaks [the same] one language to him," says Karmiloff-Smith.

If there's any confusion in the von Gottberg family, it's Antonia's. ''He's already surpassed my German," she says. Max's newest word in German? ''Bohrmaschine" (electric drill).

Reach Barbara Meltz at

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