What About Your Baby’s First Foreign Language?

To a baby born in London tonight English is a foreign language no more or less foreign than French, Chinese or Swahili. And yet, the baby will master that first (and most important) foreign language in a few short years. How do our babies do that and how can we make an environment for the baby to enrich his language and his ability to communicate?


Very young babies are geniuses at cause and effect. They are constantly pushing the edges to see what works and what does not work. There is no area where this is done with more precision and determination than in the creation of language.

Consider little Derek

When Derek was five weeks old his mother would ask him, “Derek are you hungry?” After a brief pause, he would stick out his tongue and make small but audible gasping sounds. He looked and sounded exactly like a man dying of thirst on a desert. One wonders how could a five-week-old know that this is the classical representation of a man dying of thirst?

The answer, of course, is that he does not know. But he is hungry, and since he has a very immature respiratory system he cannot make a specific sound to tell us what he needs and wants. So he does the next best thing—he pantomimes.

His response is entirely consistent. If you watch mother nurse Derek and then ask, “Derek, are you hungry?” he will look contented and happy. 


This drives us crazy. Adults always want an answer. But babies are very pragmatic. When they are in need they will answer by making a sound or sign. If their needs have been met, they communicate this by looking content. 

This clear look of contentment is an answer. It is a “No, thank you. I am fine at the moment.”


Adults often want a clear “yes” response and a clear “no” response. The look of contentment, which is the “no” response, is not strong enough for us. Sometimes when adults do not understand this they are apt to believe that the clear “yes” response they got was not real but imagined, and they pay less attention to what the baby is trying to communicate. 

Specific Sounds

By the time Derek was nine months old he would indicate that he needed to nurse by saying, “Chi-chis, chi-chis,” and mother would nurse him. He could now make a specific sound because his respiration had matured. However, the message was identical to the one he had been sending since he was five weeks old.


As it happens, Derek was a young man who was fond of nursing, and so one day when he was three years old he came into the kitchen where mother was preparing dinner and started to chant, “I want to nurse, I want to nurse!” Mother pointed out that everyone was hungry and that after dinner was prepared and eaten if he wanted to nurse she would nurse him but until then he would have to wait. He then started chanting, “Chi-chis, chi-chis.” Mother proved deaf to this request. His eight-year-old sister tugged on mother’s arm and pointed at little Derek who was sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor with his mouth open, his tongue hanging out, making little gasping sounds. His sister reminded mother that he had not done that since he was an infant. Mother laughed and said, “Yes. He is going back to what always worked.”This is precisely right — he was going back to what always worked.

Listening is vital

If mother is listening to and watching her baby, she gets the message and responds in some way. The baby is thrilled. It worked. He thinks: “There is intelligent life on earth after all.” He will then use this same method of communicating again because it worked.

So the first key ingredient in the program to help baby communicate is that you must be listening. Be on the alert to hear what the baby is trying to say to you. Begin this process at birth. Each day the sounds he makes will change. When the baby knows that you are listening, he will do his very best to communicate as often as possible. The more he does, the more skillful he becomes. The more his respiration improves through crawling and building a bigger chest, the easier it is for him to make sounds.


Once mother understands that all the sounds the baby makes are language, there are many ways she can help her baby use his sounds to communicate. For example, there are certain things she asks the baby over and over throughout the day: “How are you?”, “Are you hungry?”, “Are you sleepy?”, “Are you wet?” There are other things she tells the baby over and over again: “I love you,” “These are your toes,” “This is your nose.” There are simple instructions that she gives the baby: “Open your mouth,” “Look at Daddy,” “Push with your feet.” There are certain greetings that the baby hears over and over again: “Good morning,” “Hi,” “Bye-bye.” Since these are the things that the baby hears frequently, they are the first things that he begins to decode and understand. But even before he fully understands these messages he tries to respond.

Be Consistent

At this early stage you need to be consistent about the way you talk to your baby. When the baby hears these often repeated greetings, questions, statements, and simple instructions in the same way each time, he can recognize them. It helps him to learn the rules of conversation, the first of which is to listen to what the other fellow is saying.

To learn more about Language Development for your baby read How Smart is Your Baby?

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