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Recommended reading Tāruatia taku reo - copy my sounds Stages: Multiple

Right from birth, babies are learning to talk. The first sounds they make are a step towards speaking words. Parents can provide an environment rich with language by talking, singing and copying baby’s sounds.

Baby will begin cooing and gurgling, using ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’. Then comes babbling. Baby will add on ‘D’s’ and ‘M’s’ and ‘P’s’ to make ‘dada’ and ‘mama’ sounds. Parents can help baby learn a meaning for these sounds by repeating them back in a sentence — ‘Yes, Mama’s getting your bath ready.’ Baby will also start to experiment with squealing sounds.

First conversations

Sometimes baby will make a sound and then pause, waiting for mum or dad to make a sound back. Dad and mum can copy baby’s sounds and talk as if they understand what baby is saying.

When parents respond to their baby’s sounds, baby learns about turn-taking and the ‘back and forth’ of conversation. Copying sounds encourages babies to make more sounds. They’re learning that they’re worth listening to, and that they have something important to say.

Also, the language areas of baby’s brain are stimulated, and language pathways are built. The more language baby hears, the more these areas will be stimulated and grow. Parents need to be close to their baby’s face and look into baby’s eyes when they talk, as very young babies can only see a short distance (about 30 cm).

Noticing body language

Baby will use facial expressions and body movements with their vocalisations to communicate how they’re feeling and what they want. So it’s important for parents to read baby’s signals as well as listen to their voice.

Parents can try to name the feeling they think baby’s having, for their baby. This helps baby learn about their feelings as they grow.

Parents often use a higher voice to talk to their baby. They speak more slowly and use shorter sentences. This speech is called ‘parentese’. Babies pay more attention to this sort of speech, and their brains process it more easily. Babies love to imitate and will try to copy the sounds that mum and dad make. This helps them learn language.

Babies who are talked with a lot will know more words at a later age. When talked with, baby isn’t only learning words. Hearing mum or dad talk and sing helps them learn about building sentences and the rules of grammar.

Baby’s brain processes happy and angry voices in different ways. Their brain is particularly sensitive to voices that sound angry or threatening, and these can stress baby.

Receptive and expressive language

There are two different processes happening when baby learns language. ‘Receptive’ language is the language that baby can understand. ‘Expressive’ language is the language that baby can say. Receptive language develops before expressive language.

This means babies are learning about their language well before they can speak it, so it’s never too early for mum and dad to start talking.

When baby starts to point, parents can name what baby is pointing to and can label the things that baby shows an interest in. Parents can talk to baby about what they’re doing. Even everyday chores can sound interesting to baby.

Babies who hear language used often, in everyday loving interactions are more likely to do well at school and become confident, self-motivated learners.


  • Language areas of the brain are stimulated when parents talk to baby and copy their sounds.
  • Parentese is easier for baby’s brain to process.
  • Babies learn to understand language much earlier than they can speak it.
  • Babies who hear lots of language are more likely to become children who do well at school.

The ‘Te hinengaro mīharo’ sections in the SKIP Whakatipu booklets give parents simple neuroscience information to support them with their parenting:

  • Te Pihinga 1, page 33 — language development
  • Te Kōhuri 1, page 21 — repeating words

Further information

  • Brainwave Trust: The amazing social capabilities of babies looks at a how young babies are able to maintain a relationship with their primary caregiver right from birth.

Centre on the Developing Child: Serve and return interaction shapes brain circuitry. See how young children naturally reach out for interaction through babbling, facial expressions, and gestures.

This material is written for the Parenting Resource by Brainwave Trust Aotearoa.

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