Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D.

"I love my baby. She's mine. Don't take her. I love my baby."

The tearful mother pleaded. Her child, a 5-year-old girl, was in the hospital with severe injuries inflicted by this abusive mother.

The word 'love' used by this mother confuses us. Clearly, the word has different meaning to her than to most parents. How is it that words come to have meaning? When does the sound become the word?

The Invention of Language

We humans have a remarkable brain-mediated capacity to make sounds and let them act as symbolic representations of other things. Two hundred thousand years ago, the first word was spoken. In the arms of an adoring mother, the babbling 'mamam' of an infant became the spoken representation of safety, warmth, nourishment and, the person who provided all of this, mother. Since then we have been able to sequence, structure, and sort the roughly 40 sounds we are capable of making into thousands of complex languages with millions of unique "words."

Language Is Born in Relationships

Yet while words are our most amazing invention, human communication starts when words have no meaning. It starts by gazing, rocking, stroking, kissing, humming, the sight, sound, smell, and touch of a loved one, a bath of physical sensations — the somatosensory bath. It is in these first nonverbal interactions that one human becomes connected to another and the back and forth of communication begins. The infant's cry means, "I'm hungry or scared or cold or tired." The responsive caregiver's actions mean, "It's safe. Eat now. I bring warmth, comfort and pleasure. You are loved." To the newborn, the sounds of "I love you" are, at first, meaningless. But over time, by holding, rocking, gazing and gently stroking — as the sounds "I love you" are whispered over and over — the baby learns the meaning in the word. The sound becomes a word. To the lucky infant, love is the responsive, safe, and warm rhythmic touch — the smile, the hum and the adoring gaze.

When language does not develop in the context of caring relationships, we lose the beauty and meaning that words can convey. This abusive mother was neglected as a child. With no real primary caregiver, she lived in several shelter placements over the first years of her life and then entered the foster care system. For this mother, there were no loving attentive early relationships; rather, she learned that the word love was associated with possessions. "I love my toy. I love this food. I love these shoes." With no adult to ever hold, treasure, and respond to her needs, she never had love and never learned the meaning in the word love. And in this is a lesson for us all. Language is born in relationships.

For each newborn, exposure to repetitive spoken language in a relationship provides the stimulus for neural organization that will allow that child to develop complex language capabilities — the capacity to understand and to communicate using "words." This learning process requires that language be derived from social-emotional communication. The face, not the voice, is the major organ of human communication. Words have become our shortcuts.

Nonverbal Communication Is at the Core of All Language

Only a fraction of our total brain is dedicated to verbal communication. Indeed, the vast majority of our communication with others is nonverbal, and a huge percentage of what our brains perceive in communication from others is focused (even without our being aware) on the nonverbal signals — eye movements, facial gestures, tone of voice, latency to respond to question, the move of a hand, or tip of the head. Even as one area of the brain is processing and attending to the words in an interaction, more areas are continually focusing on, and responding to, the nonverbal actions that accompany the words. It is through nonverbal communication that we learn the meaning of words.

Nonverbal communication dominates our lives, even as we live in an increasingly verbal world. When the overwhelming joy of a first love sweeps us away, there are no words. When we seek to comfort the grieving, there are no words. But words only fail us if they are all we use to communicate. Ideally, words should complement, expand, enrich and elaborate our communication: the smile with the compliment, the adoring gaze with professed love, the soothing caress with the comforting words.

In the end, the language we teach our children is the fabric woven from our actions. And, as the child grows into our adult world, we can help her learn the true meaning of our most important words. For all of our children, the word love should become a simple syllable — a four-letter symbol — that represents the best elements of a responsive, nurturing, and adoring relationship.

Putting the Meaning into Words

    • The most effective communication is synchronous verbal and nonverbal, a combination of words and matching actions.
    • Facial expression is the most important of all social communication "instruments." When the words don't match the expression, trust the expression.
    • To truly communicate, use your eyes, your smile, your touch, the music of your voice, and the consistency of your actions.
    • Get down on the floor and make sure your eye contact is level with the child. Don't always make the child gaze up to make eye contact.
    • Become a play-by-play announcer. Show young children how to use words. Put words to your actions, feelings and thoughts. Narrate your actions to young children: "Now, I am going to wash my hands. I use soap (hold it up) to help get the dirt off my skin."
    • Children don't learn language from flashcards or audio or videotapes. We learn language — verbal and nonverbal — from people.

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Tips for Teachers

What does this information about the development of language as an extension of nonverbal communication mean to a teacher of young children?

  • Our actions do communicate more than our words.
  • Spoken language is new to young children. They must learn language in context of familiar and known forms of communication.
  • Words never replace nonverbal communication.
  • All too often we confuse children by presenting inconsistency between the words and the actions. How often have we answered "maybe" to a child's request when we know we really mean "no"?

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Dr. Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., is an internationally recognized authority on brain development and children in crisis. Dr. Perry leads the ChildTrauma Academy, a pioneering center providing service, research and training in the area of child maltreatment ( In addition he is the Medical Director for Provincial Programs in Children's Mental Health for Alberta, Canada. Dr. Perry served as consultant on many high-profile incidents involving traumatized children, including the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado; the Oklahoma City Bombing; and the Branch Davidian siege. His clinical research and practice focuses on traumatized children-examining the long-term effects of trauma in children, adolescents and adults. Dr. Perry's work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain. The author of more than 200 journal articles, book chapters, and scientific proceedings and is the recipient of a variety of professional awards.