As young twins are more prone to speech delay than single-born children, it’s important that parents of multiples “talk it up” with their babies every day to help develop their children’s language skills. And while that’s still great advice for parents of twins, fascinating new research shows it’s only half the story. Scientists from Florida Atlantic University found that around age six months, babies turn their gaze from the eyes to the mouths of their caretakers. As babies watch Mom and Dad talk to them, they’re learning how to shape their lips in order to make the sounds they’re hearing.
In other words, babies learn language by reading lips! Speech development isn’t just audio, but it’s video, too!
Furthermore, the researchers found that it doesn’t take babies very long to master this skill as their gaze once again returns to Mom and Dad’s eyes around age one, just about the time that most form their first words. So what can parents of twins, triplets and higher-order multiples learn from this new research? Quality face time is vitally important in speech and language development.
Twins and higher-order multiples are more susceptible to language delays. At 30 months old, for instance, many male twins are approximately eight months behind their singleton counterparts in expressive language. (Female twins fare a bit better.) Multiples have a tougher time in general articulating words often leaving off the first or last consonant and often speak in less complex sentences. Unfortunately, delayed speech can have a huge impact on future learning as language acquisition is strongly tied to success in reading, writing, and even spelling.
No one knows for sure why twins have a higher incidence of speech delay but we do have a few theories. For instance, since many twins instinctively understand each other’s gestures and even grunts, they have less incentive to learn to speak. There’s simply not a need. Furthermore, parents of multiples often feel overwhelmed and rushed or often can’t devote enough one-on-one time with each twin or triplet. They may speak in directives (“Come here,” or “Hungry?”) rather than full sentences (“John, please come over here to Mom,” or “Would like something to eat?).
So how can you help to make sure your twins are on the path to proper speech development?
- Use the little one-on-one time you do have with each multiple every day to your advantage. While changing diapers, for instance, face your baby and narrate what you’re doing. Remember, according to this research, language is part audio and video. They need to hear your words and see your mouth.
- Give eye contact to the child that’s speaking and allow each child the chance to ask for what they need separately rather than having one twin act as the “spokesperson” for the pair. Never allow one twin to speak for the other.
- Singing and reading aloud are not only fun but enormously helpful in learning speech.
- Gently correct syntax errors by repeating your child’s sentence using the proper words. (“Oh, you said you’d like to go outside to play?”)
- Surround your children with a large social network of family and friends of all ages. The more interaction they have with others, the better. Consider enrolling them in preschool, too.
- Don’t rely on TV as a substitute as it’s not nearly as effective as Mom or Dad’s attention.