Active Listening Starts Early

May 14, 2024, 00:00 AM by Mary Urbani


The dictionary’s definition of speech is the ability to express one’s thoughts and emotions by speech sounds and gestures.  It is one of the most important human skills associated with success in relationships, school and work.  How babies learn to talk and to understand voice sounds has been studied. The arrangement and inflection of voice sounds can impart complex ideas and emotions. 

The exchange of ideas or emotions is more complicated.  Albert Mehrabian, a researcher in body language, found that communication is 55% nonverbal, 38% vocal and 7% words only.  Body language, nonverbal communication, is eye contact, smiling, hand gestures.  The nonverbal communication can shed light on the hidden truth within a message.  “I can tell when you are lying.”  Information is not limited to print. It is delivered through social media, television, blogs and other channels of communication.  So how do humans learn to deliver or interpret body language?

Most people are not aware of their body language and facial expressions but almost everyone understands when someone says her smile did not go up to her eyes.  Reading body language is like learning a second language and can help separate perception from reality.

Babies’ first introduction to language is in utero from their mother.  Everyone can identify “baby talk” whether it is spoken by mother or father.  Piazza, e. et al at Princeton University studied the difference in adult-directed speech and infant-directed speech and found that they had significantly different patterns or fingerprints.  They found that mothers’ vocal fingerprint was different enough that a computer could distinguish between infant-directed and adult-directed speech in one second of recorded speech.

Baby talk is described by Dr. Jenny Saffran as people speaking more slowly, using shorter sentences, talking at a higher pitch and swooping their pitch up and down more often than when speaking to adults.  Adults speaking baby talk are not aware that they are changing into infant-directed speech.  Interestingly the Princeton study evaluating 12 mothers who did not speak English as their first language found that the shifts in adult-directed language to infant –directed was consistent across languages from around the world: Cantonese, French, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Mandarin, Polish, Russian and Spanish.

Parents instinctively know baby talk and communicate with their child every day. By watching and listening to their parents, children are learning verbal, nonverbal communication AND listening skills. Even toddlers can be taught to use their words by using simple reminders such as saying “please” or “thank you”.  Infant-directed talk is not often heard on the ever present devices nor is eye to eye contact.

Active listening is an important skill which begins with giving your child your full attention.   Put down your phone, book or laptop.  Maintain eye contact and focus on your child.  Nod your head, smile, sit at their level and give them your full attention because you care what they are feeling. As they communicate what they are feeling, it gives the parent a chance to help them with their concerns.

Dr. Sally Robinson

Keeping KIds Healthy

May 2024


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