21 Feb 2014

Talking to Babies ‘Spurs Language Skills’

Time for a bedtime story

If you want your child to do well at school, speak to them more as a baby.

New research shows ‘child-directed’ speech sharpens infants’ language processing skills and gives them a head-start on the language skills they’ll use – and need – in education and later life.

A team at Stanford University in California, looking at the connections between language skills and personal and vocational development, found big differences in babies’ and toddlers’ vocabularies and language skills as early as 18 months old.

At 24 months, children whose parents spoke to them the least lagged behind children who had been spoken to more, by up to six months.

Lead researcher Professor Anne Fernald said reading bedtime stories to babies and speaking to them from ‘day one’ helped to give infants an understanding of the foundation, structure and building blocks of language.

“You need to start talking to them from day one,” she told the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Chicago.

“You are building a mind, a mind that can conceptualise, that can think about the past and the future.”

Building intelligence through language

The Stanford research, tracking both English– and Spanish-learning toddlers over several years, found ‘striking variability’ in how much parents talked to their children.

Fernald and team found:

∙ Infants who heard more child-directed speech were quicker at language processing, learning new words more quickly

∙ Speaking to a child directly is more effective than overhead speech in sharpening language skills

∙ Children who are faster at recognising familiar words aged 18 months have larger vocabularies at the age of two years, scoring higher on language and cognition tests in primary school

Context is king

Children learn new words from context, Fernald said. In a sentence, the faster a child can ‘get at’ the words they know, the more able they will be to understand the next word in the sentence and learning any new words that follow.

“If you say ‘the dog is on the sofa,’ and the baby at 18 months is slow to process ‘dog,’ they’re not open for business when ‘sofa’ comes along,” she explained.

“If they’re quick on ‘dog’ and understand that the dog is on something, but don’t know what it is, the faster kids are more likely to learn ‘sofa’ from the context.”

Language gap

The research established a ‘language gap’ between children from wealthy and poor families.

The Stanford research involved kids sitting on their mother’s lap and being shown two images, such as a dog and a ball.

Via a recorded voice, the infant is then told to look at the ball. At the same time, a video camera records the child’s reaction.

Frame-by-frame analysis looked at the exact moment the child’s gaze begins to shift towards the target object, measuring their language understanding with ultra-precision.

At 18 months, toddlers from families with a higher socio-economic status (SES) could identify the correct object in about 750 milliseconds. But toddlers from a lower SES were 200 milliseconds slower to respond – a massive gap, according to Fernald.

“A 200-millisecond difference in response time at 18 months may not sound like much, but it’s huge in terms of mental processing speed,” she said.

While children of high and low SES got faster with age, at 24 months the lower SES children barely reached the level of processing efficiency that the higher SES children had achieved at 18 months.

“By two years of age, these disparities are equivalent to a six-month gap between infants from rich and poor families in both language processing skills and vocabulary knowledge,” Fernald said.

“What we’re seeing here is the beginning of a developmental cascade, a growing disparity between kids that has enormous implications for their later educational success and career opportunities.”

Looking forward

Fernand and team have set up a number of initiatives to encourage low-income parents to engage in frequent conversation with their children.

One, called ¡Habla conmigo! (Talk with Me!), sees Spanish-speaking mothers in East San Jose learn new strategies for engaging verbally with their children.

The project is in an early stage, but the preliminary results are described as promising.

“What’s most exciting,” said Fernald, “is that by 24 months the children of more engaged mums are developing bigger vocabularies and processing spoken language more efficiently.

“Our goal is to help parents understand that by starting in infancy, they can play a role in changing their children’s life trajectories.”



 
 

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