A few weeks ago, I was eating lunch with my family at a pancake house when a small blond head popped over the top of the booth next to ours.
Somewhere in the ballpark of a year old, the boy said something unintelligible—maybe baby babbling, maybe real words muffled by pancake—and gave a high-pitched giggle. He waved a tiny-syrup smeared arm in my direction.
“He’s such a flirt,” his mother said apologetically.
“He is,” cooed my own mother, who can befriend anything that will stand still long enough. “Hiiiiii.” She kicked me under the table.
“Oh—hi,” I said. I waved back. But men are fickle creatures, and our neighbor only frowned, turned around and sat back down to his food.
The point of the story is not to say that a toddler was unimpressed by my flirtation skills, though I can’t say I haven’t considered the worrisome implications of this fact. No, the point of the story is that talking to small children is hard. In my younger years, I went through phases of shying away from adults who tried to engage me in conversation. Now, the feeling has inverted: As an adult, I am anxious and tongue-tied when speaking to little kids.
That could be bad news for my future offspring. Research has repeatedly touted the benefits of exposing children to language from an early age, but a new study published in the journal Infancy got more specific, finding that verbally engaging with babies—listening to their gurgles and coos and then responding, conversation-style—may speed up their language development more than simply talking at them or around them.