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Can you tell I'm smiling? Are our masks impacting on children's language development?

Updated: Dec 21, 2020


There's so much more to communicating than just the words we use. Our eyes, facial expressions, gestures, volume and tone all work together to indicate meaning when we communicate with others.


When children are learning to talk, they are using all these clues to work out what is going on, and how they might negotiate these skills themselves. Babies read our facial expressions long before using any sounds or words. This is why there's a great piece of advice that is often given to expectant parents: to buy a parent-facing pram or pushchair to help with language development and communication.


Imagine for a second how much communication is missed when the toddler faces forward whilst the parent listens to music with earphones. On the other hand, a parent facing pushchair is more tricky on a visit to the zoo where you may spend all day whizzing your little one round to see what you see!


Due to the current pandemic we find ourselves experiencing, most adults out and about, and even in some schools and childcare settings, are wearing masks. Many people are aware that those with hearing difficulties may struggle to know what you are saying with your mask on, but what about young children? They might be able to hear you, but are they missing out on learning the other aspects that work together with the words when people talk? Can they see and copy the shape of the mouth when producing sounds?


When my children were very small, people would sometimes stop at the supermarket or in the street to talk to them. They would bend down, smile, and converse, in a friendly and kind manner. They don't now. People walk by, unable to stop to talk, or too worried to do so. In fact, there are hardly any children in the supermarket at all. Much as I love a wander round the supermarket by myself, there are so many things our children can learn from a short visit now and again, but that's another story for another blog post!


There are a few things we can do to help our little ones to learn language, when we're not wearing our masks:

  • Sit face to face, make eye contact, and have a chat!

  • Use a parent-facing pushchair, if possible

  • Sit side by side and talk or make sounds whilst looking in the mirror

  • Pull faces and copy each other's funny expressions

  • Sing songs together, facing each other sometimes

  • Point out and talk about emotions on faces in books or on TV

  • Exaggerate your facial expressions when showing emotions (not all the time!)

  • Make strings of rhyming words

  • Make silly sounds, exaggerating the shape of your mouth

  • Use video calling with relatives

  • For slightly older children, use barrier games like Guess Who? where children will use your facial expressions as clues

  • Take silly selfies together


We still need to cover up when out and about to protect each other: it's a fact of life we cannot avoid at the moment. I simply hope to raise awareness of the fact that masks could be inhibiting more learning than we realise for our young ones. They need to see our faces to learn how to make and use sounds and words. They need to see us converse with others to learn how to do so themselves.


By 2024 or 2025, when lockdown babies start school, will there be a language gap? Will more children be referred for speech and language therapy? I hope we are not creating an issue for future years but fear we may be. Perhaps it's another undocumented effect of Covid-19 that will be exposed in the future.



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