Reading interesting story with my mom

Scientists have discovered that the way parents talk to their infants has a huge effect on their intellectual development and later success. Experts discuss why and how parents should hold “conversations” with their babies.

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  • Dr. Anne Fernald, Assoc. Prof. of Psychology, Stanford Univ.
  • Dr. Kimberly Noble, Assoc. Prof. of Pediatrics, Columbia Univ.

Links for more information

16-29 Baby Talk

Reed Pence: If you’re a parent, you know life dramatically changes the day you bring your new baby home. You’ve got yourself a little human who depends on you for everything. He or she requires feeding and nurturing – and don’t forget diaper changes. But scientists say we need to add one more thing to that list: full-blown conversation.

Fernald: Parents have the power to help build their child’s brain, to build their child’s intelligence by engaging the baby in rich and varied language.

Pence: That’s Anne Fernald, associate professor of psychology at Stanford University. And while it may seem strange to carry on a conversation with a newborn who clearly doesn’t understand what you’re saying, Fernald says early exposure to rich, complex language has enormous benefits for your child.

Fernald: A newborn obviously is not understanding language, but recent infancy research over the last decade actually has one exciting study after another showing that these children are attending to the sounds that we make to them. Over the first year, the child has been intently listening.

Pence: And it turns out that the quantity and quality of the language they hear is a predictor of later success in life.

Fernald: In the 1970’s, what they found was that vocabulary growth was faster in children who heard more child-directed speech. And later on, years later in fact, when children were in the third grade, those children who’d heard more child-directed speech as babies over the first three years actually were doing much better in school.

Pence: Back in those days, Fernald says most people believed that language was innate, as if it’s already part of us coming from the womb. So not many researchers were looking at the role of language on development. But these researchers – Hart and Risley – had a hunch that it mattered. So they recruited families with diverse backgrounds – ranging from affluent to welfare recipients – to participate in their study.

Fernald: They went into the homes of these 42 families every month and made them one hour of recording using you know, using traditional tape recorder and the observer was there and so forth. But they got a kind of hour in the life of each of these children once a month over three years. So they had a huge amount of data. The famous finding that came out of that work that’s become kind of a slogan is that by the age of four years, the child of the professional family had heard 30 million more words directed to him or her than the child in the less privileged family. And that’s huge, no matter how you feel about language being innate. That’s a difference you can’t ignore, a difference in experience that has to matter.

Pence: But it’s not just the number of words a child hears that matters.

Fernald: Those caregivers who are speaking more words are also using richer, more diverse vocabulary. That’s one feature. Another feature is that more of the speech is positive and encouraging. They found the same number of directives and commands at the high and low ends of the SES spectrum. But for their less advantaged children, that’s kind of all they heard. The directives were a huge proportion of the speech they heard that day. Whereas in the more advantaged families, yes, they would hear a number of directives each day, but they would hear five times more speech that was positive and encouraging. So they weren’t just being told not to do things, they were much more often being encouraged to explore, encouraged to be curious rather than being restrained.

Pence: Despite the striking difference in early language exposure between rich and poor, Fernald is careful to note that there are many other factors that can affect a child’s brain development.

Fernald: It’s so important to remember that those kids in professional families who were hearing more speech were advantaged in many other ways. They were living in more affluent families. They probably were living in much safer neighborhoods and with better nutrition and with better healthcare. All of these factors can influence cognitive development. So it’s not appropriate to conclude that the amount of talk a child hears is the sole determinant but Hart and Risley certainly put it on the map as an important determinant.

Pence: In order to minimize some of these other factors, Fernald decided to look at how early language exposure varies among children from families with similar socioeconomic status, or SES. Her findings revealed that you can’t assume that just because someone’s rich, they talk to their kids a lot, or because they’re poor, they don’t.

Fernald: Talking to children is highly variable in different families for different reasons maybe – and the advice that parents need to be aware of that isn’t just something that’s relevant to lower SES families because there are a lot of very privileged families who are parking their children in front of devices instead of interacting with them through human interaction.

Pence: Fernald’s own research also confirms that, on average, parents from affluent families talk more to their babies than parents from disadvantaged families.

Fernald: Some kids are hearing 15, 20 times more language than other kids. And those differences matter. The unsettling aspect of this discovery is by the age of 24 months, there’s already a six-month difference between kids in the advantaged families and in the disadvantaged families. In vocabulary and in processing skills that we know are crucial for optimal language development down the road. And by optimal language development, I mean the kind of language skills that you’re going to need to really do well in school.

Pence: Fernald believes this educational gap between rich and poor can be bridged by equipping mothers with knowledge and skills that will help them talk more with their babies. But while it’s important to inform mothers about the benefits of talking to their children, information alone is not enough.

Fernald: It’s like saying, you know, musical education is important. Here’s a violin, goodbye, good luck. That’s not gonna help. You really have to combine this information with skill building exercises and give parents the opportunity to actually develop these skills and to improve them as the child or change them as the child gets older.

Pence: That’s why her research group decided to team up with a nonprofit, Grail family services, to provide training to Latina mothers in California through a program known as Habla Conmigo, which is Spanish for “speak with me.”

Fernald: Many of these families come from rural areas in Mexico where the parents had very little opportunity for education. They’ve come to the United States to have a better chance of a more successful future for their own children, to give their child more opportunities. But they bring with them traditional beliefs that are quite appropriate in the rural areas where they come from where there’s not a need to prepare a child for school particularly or to emphasize verbal skills or quantitative skills with a young child because those aren’t the skills that you need to succeed in the rural communities that they have lived in and that they’ve come from.

Pence: Fernald says one of her goals is to help the mothers realize that even if they haven’t had much formal education themselves, there’s a lot they can do to contribute to their babies’ development.

Fernald: A lot of these parents can’t imagine that they could be part of the process of helping their child prepare for school. Take something like an orange and what can you say, “well this is a fruit and this is an orange and it’s round”. But these mommas don’t read often and so reading a book is even, or even a children’s story, is an intimidating prospect. So we say, “but you know so much about this orange and your child knows very, very little or nothing”. So where did this orange come from? Well it came from a tree and then somebody planted it in the garden and it grew and they watered it and the flowers came and then the oranges and then somebody picked the oranges and put them in a box and brought them to the town and then they can talk about the store and about buying the oranges. It’s so many things you know about how that orange got here that the child has to learn about and you can tell those stories even if you can’t read them in a book.

Pence: The Habla Conmigo program is still in progress and Fernald says they’ll be following up with the families to see how effective the workshops have been in promoting the children’s language development. But just what kind of language should you use in talking to an infant? Should you use what we commonly refer to as “baby talk” when speaking with your little ones? Fernald says: absolutely.

Fernald: Baby talk is wonderful and I did a lot of research on the important work that baby talk is doing. Now, by baby talk we’re referring to the exaggerated intonation in the melodic contours of speech to a young baby. And that is characteristic certainly and in a lot of families and a lot of cultures, by exaggerating the pitch of the word that goes with the object, you’re possibly drawing the child’s attention to it and helping the child to be attending to the right thing.

Pence: But while it’s great to talk baby talk, at some point you have to speak proper English. At least according to Kimberly Noble, associate professor of pediatrics at Columbia University.

Kimberly Noble: Babies learn what they’re exposed to and so we don’t recommend using baby words or nonsense words in place of real words when describing things and we don’t recommend simplifying language either. So there’s no reason to point to an object and just say “book”. It’s more helpful for the baby to hear you say, “This is a book, how about we read it?”

Pence: Although the workshop-based approach holds promise for bridging the knowledge gap between rich and poor, Noble says the challenge will be figuring out how to scale up the programs so that more parents can reap the benefits.

Noble: While they may be effective in university settings, it’s often quite challenging to scale up to a larger level because of difficulties of getting parents to buy into the program in the first place and then to continue and not drop out.

Pence: Understandably, some parents are so busy that they feel like they simply don’t have the time to chat it up with their little ones. But Fernald’s advice is to find opportunities to talk in the everyday moments, like during diaper changes and mealtimes.

Fernald: There are some basic responsibilities that we all agree with across cultures that are essential when caring for a child like giving them enough nourishment, keeping them clean, giving them exercise and keeping them safe. These are things that where nobody would say “I’m sorry I work too hard, I don’t have time to feed my child this week”. And I think we need to add something else to that list which is to be providing cognitive nutrition as well as physical nutrition for physical growth. To be providing learning opportunities that enable the child to fulfill the potential that every child has for cognitive development.

Pence: So next time you’re with your tiny little child and wondering what’s the best way to pass the time, consider striking up a conversation. It may not always appear to be the case… But they’re listening.

You can find out more information about all of our guests on our website

Our writer this week is Christine Herman.

I’m Reed Pence.

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