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Our Mothers are Teachers

The interaction between a mother and child plays an important role in child language development.

Editor's Note: Dr. Ellenmorris Tiegerman is the founder and executive director of the School for Language and Communication Development in Glen Cove.

The most important lessons in language development are not learned in school but at home with Mother. The interaction between mother and child during the first three years of life is so specialized and unique that it is referred to in clinical research as "Motherese." 

When a mother speaks to her young child, she regulates the structure and the content of her input to her child's level of understanding. So when a mother speaks to her very young language learner, she uses one or two word utterances, she repeats herself many times, and she uses objects within the environment that her child can see. A mother also assumes that her child may not understand everything, which provides an explanation for not only with her patience but  with her repetitiveness. When describing an action or an object to her child, she looks at her child, then at the object and then back at her child. She shows the child the object, manipulates the object and then offers the object to the child. She always gets down to the child's level of vision.  

This interactive pattern changes slowly as the child acquires language and becomes more sophisticated as a communicator. As the child takes on more responsibility as a partner in the conversational exchange, a mother regulates her input to a more complex level. As a good teacher, a mother's language lessons involve daily activities which are usually routinized and have a great deal of redundancy. A mother also changes her assumption about her child's level of understanding since he is much more verbally responsive as he gets older and takes on a more independent role as a speaker.  

The shift in the communication pattern between a mother and an older child can best be exemplified when she is upstairs and he is downstairs. In this situation, a mother assumes that he does understand but has chosen not to listen to her. So she says in a loud voice which is getting louder, 'Michael, didn't you hear what I said? I don't want to have to repeat myself. Turn off the TV and come upstairs.' This says it all. A mother assumes that her Michael understands what she is saying even though she is not in the same room with him. In fact, she is annoyed that her message was not responded to the first time she said it. 

As children get older, there is a greater assumption that not only must they understand spoken language but that they must be responsible for the things that they say.  

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