A parent can strengthen their child’s language skills by the way they talk to them. Maskot/Getty Images
  • Researchers say how parents interact with young children is a major factor in how a child develops language skills.
  • Experts say the amount of time parents spend with a child is also a contributor to the child’s development.
  • Reading to children is also important, as is providing encouragement to learn new things.

A child’s language learning process is complex. 

It’s not simply a matter of understanding simple concepts and building from there.

Rather, how parents interact with their children makes a marked difference in their burgeoning language skills, a new study suggests. 

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh paired 41 groups of parents and children and asked them to play a series of games where toddlers (ages 15 to 23 months) had to select a specific animal from a set of three with the parent’s assistance. 

They then observed the differences in how parents spoke to children about animals they expected a child to know — like a cat — versus one that might be more unfamiliar — like a peacock. 

They found that while parents all used different approaches to help a child understand what an “unknown” animal was in the game, they tailored their teaching using a deep understanding of their child’s individual linguistic development. 

“Parents have an incredibly precise knowledge of their child’s language because they have witnessed them grow and learn,” Daniel Yurovsky, PhD, the lead study author and an assistant professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon, said in a press release. “These results show that parents leverage their knowledge of their children’s language development to fine-tune the linguistic information they provide.”

The study authors also found that parents nimbly adjusted their descriptive approach when their children didn’t know an animal that they thought they would. 

“The study was among the first to demonstrate that parents will shape their language given their (mostly accurate) belief about the knowledge state of language of their children,” said Felix Wang, PhD, a developmental psychology professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. “The idea is an old idea, and the novel experimental evidence nicely demonstrated it. I would add a comment that though this effect is framed as a trait of parents who engage in the act of teaching language to their children, it is unclear whether it is an effect generally applicable to two people, one teaching the other, or even broader communicative scenarios in general. 

“This in no way diminishes the significance of the finding,” Wang told Healthline. “In fact, I am saying that the applicability of the conclusions can be even broader than it was argued.”

How parents can help their kids

The study didn’t come to any prescriptive conclusions but rather noted that parents should keep doing what they’re doing.

And the more time spent with their child, being attentive, perhaps the better. 

Studies have shown that the more you read and speak to your baby, the higher babies tend to score in language and cognitive development measures. 

But one thing the study lacked, said Laurie Hollman, PhD, a child psychoanalyst and child development expert, was a more in-depth accounting of how parents and children interacted beyond verbal language. 

“Babies shape what their parents hear and how they respond,” Hollman told Healthline. “That is, language is co-created. Videos of the parent and toddler interacting using the examples in the study would reveal the eye contact, the toddler’s and parent’s gestures toward or away from each other, and when the baby is over- or under-stimulated and how the parent responds.”

But the main thing most adults need to parent well and aid language development is time, many experts said. 

“To me, the take-home is that a parent remains a child’s first and perhaps most important and committed teacher,” Rebecca Mannis, PhD, a developmental psychologist and professional learning specialist, told Healthline. 

“The more we can support parents and give them information about how their kids grow, the more parents can use that information — both their instincts and what they have learned — to encourage and engage with their children,” Mannis said.

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