The sooner parents start explaining the world to their baby, the better.
That does not mean flash cards for tots, or merely pointing out objects:
"Here's an orange. That's a bowl."
New research shows that both how much and how well parents talk with babies
and toddlers helps tune the youngsters' brains in ways that build crucial
language and vocabulary skills — a key to fighting the infamous word gap that
puts poor children at a disadvantage at an even younger age than once thought.
talk key in language acquisition
The idea is to connect words and meaning, so the brain becomes primed to
learn through context: "Let's put the orange in this bowl with the banana
and the apple and the grapes."
"You're building intelligence through language," is how Stanford
University psychology professor Anne Fernald explains it.
No more baby talk?
And forget dumbed-down baby talk: Longer, more complex sentences are better.
"The advice I give mothers is to have conversations with their
babies," said Erika Hoff, a psychology professor at Florida Atlantic
University. "Children can hear lots of talk that goes over their head in
terms of the meaning, and still benefit from it."
The research, presented at a meeting of the American
Association for the Advancement of Science, comes amid a growing push for
universal preschool, to help disadvantaged youngsters catch up.
But it also begs the question of whether children from low-income, less
educated families need earlier intervention, such as preschool that starts at
age 3 instead of 4, or higher quality day care or even some sort of "let's
talk" campaign aimed at new parents to stress talking, singing and reading
with tots even before they can respond. That can be difficult for parents
working multiple jobs, or who may not read well or who simply don't know why
Millions more words
Scientists have long known that before they start kindergarten, children
from middle-class or affluent families have heard millions more words than
youngsters from low-income families, leaving the poorer children with smaller
vocabularies and less ready to succeed academically. Fernald said by some
measures, 5-year-olds from low-income families can lag two years behind their
peers in tests of language development, an achievement gap that's difficult to
scans support the link, said Dr Kimberly Noble of Columbia University
Medical Centre. Early experiences shape the connections that children's brains
form, and kids from higher socioeconomic backgrounds devote more "neural
real estate" to brain regions involved in language development, she found.
shape toddlers' language development
cries may predict later language development
How early does the word gap appear? Around age 18 months, Stanford's Fernald
discovered when she compared how children mentally process the language they
hear. Lower-income kids in her study achieved at age 2 the level of proficiency
that more affluent kids had reached six months earlier.
To understand why language processing is so important, consider this
sentence: "The kitty's on the bench." If the youngster knows the word
"kitty," and his brain recognises it quickly enough, then he has can
figure out what "bench" means by the context. But if he's slow to
recognize "kitty," then "bench" flies by before he has a
chance to learn it.
Next, Fernald tucked recorders into T-shirts of low-income toddlers in
Spanish-speaking households to determine what they heard all day and found
remarkable differences in what's called child-directed speech. That's when
children are spoken to directly, in contrast to television or conversations
One child heard more than 12 000 words of child-directed speech in a day,
while another heard a mere 670 words, she found. The youngsters who received
more child-directed speech processed language more efficiently and learned
words more quickly, she reported.
But it's not just quantity of speech that matters, it's quality, Hoff
cautioned. She studied bilingual families and found that whatever the language,
children fare better when they learn it from a native speaker. In other words,
if mom and dad speak Spanish but aren't fluent in English, it's better for the
child to have a solid grounding in Spanish at home and then learn English later
Next, scientists are testing whether programmes that teach parents better ways
to talk to tots really do any good. Fernald said preliminary results from one
of the first a programme called Habla Conmigo that enrols low-income,
Spanish-speaking mothers in San Jose, California are promising.
Fernald analysed the first 32 families of the 120 the programme will enrol.
Mothers who underwent the eight-week training are talking more with their
toddlers, using higher-quality language, than a control group of parents and by
their second birthday, the children have bigger vocabularies and process
language faster, she said Thursday.
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