Baby talk and academic language: Basically the same thing.

stacking rings“Now let’s play with the stacking rings. Can you find the stacking rings? They’re over there, by the books. Do you see them? Can you find the red stacking ring? It’s the biggest one. That’s the yellow one in your hand, it’s very small, but can you find the red ring? There it is! Red. Rojo. Can you put the red ring on the peg? Nicely done! The next color we need is purple. Morado.”

This is a typical one-sided conversation with my 15-month-old son. Providing rich input to my pre-speech toddler has felt surprisingly contrived, and doesn’t come naturally to me. Here’s a version that would feel more natural:

“Now let’s play with the rings. They’re over there. Do you see them? Where’s the red one? No, that’s purple. There it is! Can you put it here? Now the orange one.”

When I’m delivering speech act #1, I feel like a teacher. It resembles discourse that might be found in any second or foreign language classroom, and indeed, my son feels very much like a language learner, with the appropriate indicators that his mental gears are turning, trying to understand. Meanwhile, speech act #2 is extremely context-reliant. It uses pronouns, rather than repetitive antecedents. I use all the same nonverbal cues in #1, but the language is far richer, especially since I deliberately incorporate key vocabulary in Spanish as well. Because my husband speaks only in Spanish with our son, I’ve asked him to try to provide similarly structured, content-rich input in his own interaction, so our son gets some kind of balance between the two languages.

Is it necessary to take such pains? Obviously, most children learn language properly, even if their parents are neither teachers nor linguists, and many bilingual children pick up two languages with less deliberate exposure. So why bother?

Because academic vocabulary is critical to literacy and to achievement, particularly for bilingual students. As Ben Johnson writes here, even his own, English-proficient children look at him quizzically when he uses advanced vocabulary around them. If confusion is the natural reaction of English monolinguals, we educators can hardly expect English Learners to have encountered academic language with enough frequency to feel comfortable with it. Indeed, siblings from this immigrant family in California are frustrated because they consider themselves proficient in English, but struggle to speak fluidly and grammatically in either English or their home language of Spanish, and their test scores, indicating low proficiency, haven’t budged for years.

Regardless of a child’s status with English, and inside or outside the classroom, a few practices prove themselves time and again for vocabulary development. Substantial time on task, with explicit and repeated exposure to new words and concepts, via contextualized situations that incorporate the senses and a variety of learning modes, is key to language growth. Younger bilingual learners, whose developmental limitations require years to build double vocabularies, especially require that teachers and parents patiently and consciously provide opportunities to learn and practice.

Sure, it takes effort. But it’s just plain fun to watch kids learn.

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