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 visually impaired 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, he 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 him to associate the sounds with you and your lips.
- Give your baby lots of opportunities to touch the people he cannot see. This will help him 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 him who you are and let him touch you.
- Name your child’s toys as he plays 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 he saw or touched the object before; show him how he might use it.
- Ask fewer questions; give more answers. Your visually impaired child needs answers and information. Avoid using the question method until he or she is in law school!
- 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 his 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 he brings you his sweater: He is telling you that he wants to play outside.
- 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 him feel gestures. For example, when you go to pick up your child, lift his arms upward first, say “up” at the same time, and then pick him 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 his nose with his hand or finger. Later, play the game on your body by having him 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 visually impaired child’s language, both internal (what he understands) and external (what he says) 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 visually impaired 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 his 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 sister is playing with the toy you want. I know your sister feels jealous when you are playing with it too!” When you observe your child interacting with another whether positively or negatively, let him know how he likely made the other feel. As your child becomes more aware of his 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.” They 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.