Understanding the Stages of Language Development for Babies Who Are Blind
Repeating or echoing what other people say is a stage all children go through. It’s a way of practicing speech and learning about language and communication. For blind and low vision children, this stage sometimes seems to last a long time.
Language is abstract. Words stand for real people, concepts, or things. Until your child understands, they will not be able to put words together to form speech. Repeating the words of others is easier.
While it’s not known how important vision is in learning to talk, it is a fact that older babies with typical vision pay particular attention to adults’ mouths as they are talking.
- Take your child’s fingers and place them on your lips as you babble to each other. This will help to associate the sounds with you and your lips.
- Give your baby lots of opportunities to touch the people they cannot see. This will help your child begin to associate familiar voices with familiar touch and familiar scents.
- Pair touch with sound. For example, when you approach your baby, be sure to tell them who you are and let them touch you.
- Name your child’s toys as they play with them—infancy on. Expand on just naming by saying things like, “Listen to the bell when you shake your sound ball in your hands.”
- Don’t spend all your talking time just naming objects. Point out similarities, remind your child where they saw or touched the object before; show how it might be used.
- Ask fewer questions; give more answers. Your blind or low vision child needs answers and information. Avoid using the question method.
- Teach your child to take turns when playing by lightheartedly stating, “Your turn to shake the ball” and “My turn to shake the ball.” Transfer “turn taking” to conversations by stating, “Your turn to talk… My turn to talk, just like when we play back-and-forth with the toy.”
At first, you may feel like a chatterbox because it seems as if you spend all your time talking. Many parents report, however, that talking with their child helps them relax, forget about their child’s vision problem, and focus on the many ways that their child communicates without vision or highly developed speech.
The Second Stage
- Your child will begin to anticipate and associate things that happen in their daily routine. For example, a particular sweater might be the signal that it’s time to go outside to play. If given the chance to associate such things with events, a child who does not yet talk will communicate a message when they bring you a sweater:
- Using gestures doesn’t come naturally to children who can’t see them. But you can help your child learn how to use them appropriately by letting your child feel gestures. For example, when you go to pick up your child, lift their arms upward first, say “up” at the same time, and then pick them up.
- Teach pointing by using your child’s body to play games. You might say, “Where’s your nose,” and then help your child touch their nose with their hand or finger. Later, play the game on your body by having them point to your nose, ears, hair, mouth, etc.
- Remind your child that conversations are best when following a back-and-forth pattern, similarly to when you take turns in a board game or in a game of passing the ball.
The Third Stage
It is essential that a child’s language, both internal (what is understood) and external (what is said) is reality-based. For example, your child needs to understand that an egg is an egg when it’s in the shell, in its viscous raw state, fried, scrambled, hard boiled, or baked in a cake. Many children who are blind or low vision develop incomplete ideas of everyday things because it’s all too easy to forget to show them that an object can be the same even when it looks and feels different.
- Use concrete examples. Whenever possible, use the real thing. A plastic toy turtle doesn’t give a child a very realistic or useful sense of what “turtle” means, but if your child can touch and explore a live turtle, he or she experiences the varied textures of its shell, feet, and head and begins to understand how it moves and uses its shell for protection. Also, words and phrases like “turtleneck” and “hiding in a shell” will have more meaning.
- Use simple sentences with your child when teaching the names of objects. If you give your child a hanger, say something like: “Here’s the hanger. There’s a jacket on the hanger. It must be your jacket. Let’s take the jacket off the hanger. Then you can wear it.”
- Help your child identify their own thoughts and anticipate the thoughts and actions of others. When you recognize your child is feeling a particular way, say something like “You might be feeling jealous that your sibling is playing with the toy you want. I know your sibling feels jealous when you are playing with it too!” When you observe your child interacting with another whether positively or negatively, let them know how they likely made the other feel. As your child becomes more aware of their feelings and beliefs and the feelings and beliefs of others, he becomes a more empathetic person and will have an easier time understanding and conversing with others.
Toward the end of this stage, a child’s speaking vocabulary will probably increase to around 20 to 50 words. Toddlers begin to put two words together to express an idea, such as “milk gone” or “more cookie.” Your child will know the names of many things in their immediate environment. They listen to stories. They have come a long way from that first word, both in understanding and in using language to communicate.