Talking directly to toddlers strengthens their language skills

October 22, 2013

(Medical Xpress)—Just as young children need nourishing food to build physical strength, they also need linguistic nutrition for optimal development of language and cognitive abilities.

New research from psychology researchers at Stanford University shows that by talking more to their toddler, parents help the child learn to process language more quickly, which accelerates vocabulary growth. The research is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

It is well-known that socioeconomic status (SES) plays a role in language development. In general, children of lower-SES families have smaller vocabularies and lower language proficiency scores than more advantaged children. The new work helps elucidate the mechanism for these SES disparities, suggesting ways to reduce the language gap.

Previous efforts to measure the impact of child-directed have involved observing a mother and child interact for an hour or so during child-centered activities.

"This artificial setup isn't ideal," said lead researcher Adriana Weisleder, "since it ignores the other people and contexts important in the child's daily experiences."

Instead of bringing caregivers and toddlers to the lab for observation, Weisleder and Anne Fernald, a Stanford psychology professor and co-author on this study, asked mothers to record their children in the everyday tumult of the home environment. They enrolled 29 children, 19 months old, from low-income Latino families, a growing sector of the U.S. population that is underrepresented in research. Each child was outfitted with a special shirt containing a small audio recorder that captured all the sounds he or she heard during the day.

"Most toddlers don't spend their days just with mom," Fernald said. "A 10-hour recording of interactions at home gives us a more natural, representative sample of each child's daily language exposure."

The recordings were analyzed by special software, called LENA (Language Environment Analysis), which distinguishes between human speech and other sources of speech, such as television and radio, and provides a measure of each. Native Spanish speakers then listened to the recordings to differentiate adult speech directed to the child from speech the child only overheard, such as when the caregiver was on the phone or talking with another adult.

There were surprisingly large differences between families in the amount of child-directed speech toddlers heard from adults over the course of a 10-hour day. One toddler heard more than 12,000 words of child-directed speech, while another heard only 670 words during the entire day.

"That's just 67 words per hour, less speech than you'd hear in a 30-second commercial," Fernald said.

How child-directed speech works

To determine the impact of these differences, the researchers conducted follow-up tests five months later. They found that those children who had experienced more child-directed speech had larger vocabularies by 24 months, compared to children who had heard less child-directed speech.

"By capturing different contexts of daily language interactions at home, we were able to show that adult speech to the child – but not speech simply overheard by the child – is important for vocabulary learning," Weisleder said. "Mere exposure to speech directed to others or on TV is not enough to drive early vocabulary development. Toddlers learn language in the context of meaningful interactions with those around them."

The researchers also assessed children's efficiency in language processing, using a procedure designed by Fernald. Toddlers were shown two images – for example, a dog and a book – as they listened to a voice asking them to look at one of the pictures, while a video camera recorded the child's reaction.

Trained "coders" then reviewed the video, noting the exact moment when the child's gaze shifted toward the named object. In this way, the researchers could study children's speed and accuracy in interpreting familiar words, with millisecond-level precision.

This test showed that children who had experienced more child-directed speech were more efficient at processing language. The analyses revealed a cascade of effects – those toddlers who heard more child-directed talk became faster and more reliable in interpreting speech, and it was their superior skill in processing language that then increased their success in vocabulary learning.

"As you learn language, you're getting faster and more accurate at interpreting the words you know in fluent speech, and this helps you pick up and learn new words as well," said Weisleder, who conducted the research as a graduate student in Fernald's lab and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the NYU School of Medicine.

Bridging the language gap

An important finding was that even within a low-SES group there were substantial differences among parents in verbal engagement with their children and in children's language outcomes.

"A central message of this research is that SES does not determine the quality of children's language experience," Fernald said. "Despite the challenges associated with living in poverty, some of these moms were really engaged with their children, and their kids were more advanced in processing efficiency and vocabulary."

In other cases, Weisleder said, the mothers they spoke with were unaware that they were capable of helping their learn. The researchers believe this lack of confidence exists partly because the adults hadn't received much education themselves.

The scientists are now working on interventions with disadvantaged Latino families to help parents learn how to engage more effectively with . By developing special games and skill-building exercises, their goal is to educate families about the crucial role they can play in fostering a child's language and cognitive development.

"Parents need to know the importance of providing linguistic nutrition and exercise to their young ," Fernald said. "By talking with them more in an engaging and supportive way, parents can nurture early brain development and build a strong foundation for learning."

Explore further: Language gap between rich and poor kids begins in infancy, study find

More information: pss.sagepub.com/content/early/ … 97613488145.abstract

Related Stories

Language gap between rich and poor kids begins in infancy, study find

September 26, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Fifty years of research has revealed the sad truth that the children of lower-income, less-educated parents typically enter school with poorer language skills than their more privileged counterparts. By ...

'Motherese' important for children's language development

May 6, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Talking to children has always been fundamental to language development, but new research reveals that the way we talk to children is key to building their ability to understand and create sentences of ...

Responsive interactions key to toddlers' ability to learn language

September 24, 2013
Young children readily learn words from their parents, grandparents, and child care providers in live conversations, but learning from video has proven more difficult. A new study questioned why and found that it's the responsiveness ...

Don't judge a book by its cover, researchers urge parents

August 7, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Parents who read picture books to their two-year-olds could improve their children's language skills, regardless of whether the book contains long sentences or just one or two words, according to new research.

BEST: Innovative technique to facilitate language development in children

November 28, 2012
A Newcastle University expert has won a prestigious award for her work to help young children with language difficulties. Dr Cristina McKean and Drs Sean Pert and Carol Stow, who both work for Pennine Care NHS Foundation ...

Recommended for you

Visual clues we use during walking and when we use them

July 25, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A trio of researchers with the University of Texas and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has discovered which phase of visual information processing during human walking is used most to guide the feet accurately. ...

Toddlers begin learning rules of reading, writing at very early age, study finds

July 25, 2017
Even the proudest of parents may struggle to find some semblance of meaning behind the seemingly random mish-mash of letters that often emerge from a toddler's first scribbled and scrawled attempts at putting words on paper.

Using money to buy time linked to increased happiness

July 24, 2017
New research is challenging the age-old adage that money can't buy happiness.

Exposure to violence hinders short-term memory, cognitive control

July 24, 2017
Being exposed to and actively remembering violent episodes—even those that happened up to a decade before—hinders short-term memory and cognitive control, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National ...

Researchers pave new path toward preventing obesity

July 24, 2017
People who experience unpredictable childhoods due to issues such as divorce, crime or frequent moves face a higher risk of becoming obese as adults, according to a new study by a Florida State University researcher.

Higher cognitive abilities linked to greater risk of stereotyping

July 24, 2017
People with higher cognitive abilities are more likely to learn and apply social stereotypes, finds a new study. The results, stemming from a series of experiments, show that those with higher cognitive abilities also more ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.