Communicating with children while wearing masks

– with Ariadne Lee, Christina Blanco, Jessica Lonis, Dr. Liz Fuller Rodano, Roya Caviglia and Shaymaa M.

 

Babies, toddlers and preschoolers are highly relying on facial expression and lip movement when acquiring and learning language.

Considering the current situation, David J. Lewkowicz points out in an article on Scientific American that “masks can be detrimental to babies’ speech and language development”. He argues that “now that the face mask has become the essential accoutrement of our lives, the COVID pandemic has laid bare our fundamental need to see whole faces.”

I started a conversation about this in my fb group Multilingual Families as this was also a recurrent concern for some clients in the past months and I was curious to hear about other people's opinion experience.

We know that babies begin lip-reading at around eight months of age, and that lip movement is very important especially in the early phases of language acquisition.
When multilingual children are exposed to the additional language in the daycare or preschool only, it is natural for parents to assume that the lack of non-verbal cues, gestures, lip movements could slow down if not hinder their children’s language acquisition.

It is reassuring to know that we usually compensate a bad audio or a noisy surrounding by focusing on lip movements, gestures, facial expressions etc., and when part of the face is covered we focus on what we can observe, i.e. gestures, body movements, eye expressions and the intonation of the voice.

 

When we can not see the person’s micro expressions, isn’t it like being hearing or visually impaired?

For some people it feels like this. At least in the first few minutes. When the only input we get is  "filtered", it requires considerable effort to understand what and how it's said. If it is in a language we are still learning, the energy and effort we have to make to understand increases considerably.

Roya Caviglia, developer of the Infant Communication and Baby Sign Language course, who is learning Dutch herself says that she struggles “with understanding Dutch from a mask wearer, now that I cannot see their mouth and lip read. It’s incredible how much I relied on it! It is indeed like struggling with an impairment.”

 

I suppose that for this reason it is not mandatory in every country for adults to wear masks when working at daycares and preschools.

Jessica Lonis is “glad we don’t wear masks at daycare and schools in The Netherlands. (…) Obviously not the safest option but education has already had so many setbacks because of Corona: thankfully we don’t have to add this issue to the long list of development problems as well.” Her eight month old baby is used to seeing her wearing a mask when she picks her up from daycare, goes to the supermarket etc.. "I notice she is good at reading my eyes! She mimics me even when I have a mask on: when I smile, she smiles, when I make a “kiss” noise, she does too. I think our babies from the Corona generation, are going to be better in reading faces than anyone else.”

Roya has mixed feelings that at her daughter’s preschool in the Netherlands they have decided against the teaching staff wearing masks, but finds that “when it comes to her learning Dutch (not a home language!) it is better.” She shares that an experienced daycare teacher and grandmother told her that she “has seen a definite decline in language development in the babies she cares for since mask wearing became mandatory where she works in the US. She has been focusing on using more signs with the babies to try and compensate.”

Shaymaa M., an Egyptian-American linguist who is raising her daughter multilingually, and who, herself is bilingual Arabic-English, currently living in the US shared that her infant born during the pandemic shows different reactions around people with a masks versus no mask: “Her father and I are pretty much the only unmasked people she sees, we’ve been inside most of the time and if we do go out we rarely see human faces or have a chance to actually have her look at anyone. When a masked person talks to her she seems really confused and doesn’t know how to respond. Some times she is scared, but warms up when she hears their voices or see their overall body movements. She loves to look at faces and moving bodies be it animals or humans. She usually smiles or makes sounds when a person without a mask interacts with her, so, overall I’d say: Masks make her really confused and she feels like she doesn’t have enough input to produce a reaction herself, which is very interesting!”

Other parents shared that their babies react in a similar, confused and upset way when people who speak to them are wearing masks. 

Christina Blanco, whose three year old attends a Spanish Immersion Montessori school on the US, where “guides wear masks, the children do not”, feels that “parents are concerned that mask wearing is detrimental to development because it’s unfamiliar to us. But because it is different doesn’t mean it will have negative consequences." Children can still see the forehead, eyes and cheeks. They learn to pick up on cues that we don't consider because we are see the mask as an impediment.

I made the same experience with the three year old daughter of a client I had the pleasure to meet in person. I wore a funny mask, which probably contributed to her being rather attracted to my face. I focused on gestures, mimic and a clear and a bit louder articulation to make sure she would understand what I was saying. I also made sure to make clear eye contact with her. During the 45 minutes of our session she never had a moment where she complained or was distracted. Her mother assumed it was also because I was the first person that wasn’t family, she had been interacting with “in real life” for a longer period since several months. Although this might have contributed to the readiness of her daughter to engage with me, I think that by adjusting my communication strategies, but also the fact that I spoke Italian with the girl, the same language she was exposed to at home, in a mask-free environment, contributed to our successful conversation. 

Christina adds that “our children are hearing the sounds and matching the intonation to different facial cues (eyes/eyebrows vs mouth). This might make some of us uncomfortable because it is not what we usually focus on, but this doesn’t make it less effective.”

Emphasizing words by choosing a specific intonation and focusing on clearer articulation to convey our messages is key.

 

Dr. Liz Fuller Rodano, Pre-K Coordinator at the German International School NY mentions using the one teacher-one language method with the three to six year old children. In her school, teachers wear masks, as they are not a daycare but part of a larger school and have to abide by the state guidelines for schools. “In daycares in NYS, children are not masked, but the caregivers are. Transparent masks and shields are not approved – shields can be used in addition to masks."

She mentions that at her school they have obtained great results with using the Total Physical Response method (TPR), which is one of their primary language teaching methods. This method allows children “to connect to new vocabulary and build a receptive language base.”

I wonder if we shouldn't differentiate between children who are exposed to the same language in other non-masked settings and those who only receive language input from people wearing masks?

Dr. Liz Fuller Rodano explains that “many children come with only one of the two languages, or with neither. When we read a book with animals, for example, I would say the name of the animal and make the noise. Then the children make the noise (lion – ROAR!). I repeat the name of the animal. My colleague does this again in the other language. This way they build the connection – for example: Löwe and lion. Or we pick one or two key words. Hat, for example. Anytime they hear the word hat in a story, they would put their hands in the shape of a hat on their heads. In addition to story-time, we pretty much use TPR all day long. We model what we want them do along with the accompanying language. Then we give them the directions, and support them in making the connection: "Hang your jacket in your cubby.” We hold the jacket – [say] “jacket” – we walk to the cubby and point “cubby” and then we show them what they should do. Then we say “ok, now put YOUR jacket in the cubby”. And they do.”

Apparently the children's language development in her school does not seem to be affected by teachers wearing masks: “Even with masks and little support at home, our children have flourished in developing the key languages. Children are flexible and their brains seem to have figured out a strategy around the masks. I find that adults are far more concerned about masks than children are. They don’t even remember that we have them on half the time.”

Ariadne Lee “definitely felt the difference” with her daughter who was three years old when the pandemic started. They use Chinese at home and English is mostly used at daycare. “Daycare resumed this week and adults kept their mask on while kids are encouraged but not forced. The social interactions seem to encourage her English communication and she managed to engage in proper English conversation this afternoon (at her insistence).” Ariadne assumes that “mask wearing probably affects some language acquisition” but she believes it is temporary and shouldn’t hinder the long term language learning. "Imagine visually challenged people acquiring languages. Our other senses and technologies can be used to compensate the temporary mask situation.”

As for older children who are focusing more on phonological awareness, working on syllables is a way for them to comprehend the word. “This is very effective for our 4s and 5s” Dr. Liz Fuller Rodano explains, "they would emphasize the syllables, for example in GeburtstagGe Burts Tag, so that they focus on syllable and letter sounds – Hören, Lauschen, Lernen.

 

I guess that instead of allowing masks to hinder the communication, we should train and use our other senses to compensate the temporary (?) mask situation.

We all experience the mask wearing in varying ways. Some consider it as an offense of our human rights or freedom, and physically struggle with it, others, who handle it in a more flexible and resilient way, and have found ways to live with them. I find it interesting to see how people react in different ways, and am curious to see how our youngest children are who need to acquire their languages switching back and forth between mask-wearing speakers and not-mask-wearing speakers will be doing in a year or two.

 

Meanwhile, I suggest that we all learn to use pitches, work on our clearer enunciation, put more emphasis on gestures and "speak more with our eyes".

 

How will this all impact our children?

As we can not foresee what impact this period will have on our children in the coming years, we can only assume that our children will be way more resilient than we think.

Christina shared an interesting insight into “early research on social media [which] indicated that millennials were far worse at communicating because they favoured short text over long conversations. Later research has changed its findings and is now saying that younger adults are far better at communicating than older adults because they grew up in an environment where they have had to respond quickly and constantly and thus they’ve learned the nuances of appropriate social behavior and what to say and not to say etc.”.

Therefore “current mask wearing and development research is looking at learning based on how we learned and our young children are learning differently, not necessarily less.”

 

Here are my 8 tips on how to improve communication while wearing a mask:

  1. Make eye contact
  2. Enunciate clearly
  3. Exaggerate speech sounds if needed (especially with babies and toddlers)
  4. Slow down the pace of your speech if you see that the child has problems following what you say
  5. Decrease background noise if possible
  6. Increase the volume of your speech (not the pitch)
  7. Use your eyes (and eye brows) to emphasize your speech
  8. Use gestures and body language to support your verbal message (with babies and infants you can also use baby sign language!)

 

 

– A big thank you to Ariadne Lee, Christina Blanco, Jessica Lonis, Dr. Liz Fuller Rodano, Roya Caviglia and Shaymaa M. for sharing your knowledge, experience and thoughts on this topic with me. 

 

 


– Please share your thoughts about this topic in the comments.

Articles mentioned in the post:

David J. Lewkowicz and Amy M. Hansen-Tift, Infants deploy selective attention to the mouth of a talking face when learning speech, PNAS, 31 January 2012, 109 (5), 1431-1436. [https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1114783109]

Küspert, Petra, und Schneider, Wolfgang, Hören, lauschen, lernen – Anleitung und Arbeitsmaterial. Sprachspiele für Kinder im Vorschulalter – Würzburger Trainingsprogramm zur Vorbereitung auf den Erwerb der Schriftsprache, Vandenhoeck-Ruprecht, 7- Auflage.

David J. Lewkowicz, Masks can be detrimental to babies speech and language development, Scientific American, 11 February 2021.

Gastbeitrag: Elke Mußmann, Maria Sarfo, Rica Sanny, Mimik und Spracherwerb in Zeiten von Corona, Kinderzeit.de, 8 September 2020 (accessed: 7 March 2021, 13:30) – Dokument das in einer Arbeitsgurppe der ASB-Werkstatt-Kitas entstanden ist.

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