07.11.19

Talk To Me, Baby! The benefits of frequent, high-quality conversations with babies on brain and language development

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Viral video of father and 18-month old son talking about a TV show. (Source: Comedian DJ Pryor)

When I had my daughter, we were living on an Army base in rural Alabama. I was FAR away in every possible way from anything familiar to me as a lifelong New York City resident. I had no friends nearby and my ex-husband worked 24-48 hour shifts, so most of the time it was just me, the pug (Chuckie), and the infant. At the time (1998-1999), the internet was not its current ubiquitous self, and 10 cents-per-minute long distance calls on landline phones were still a thing, so my opportunities for consistent conversations with other adults were limited. This was a challenge, as I am an admitted chatter. I grew up in a home with chatty parents who had chatty friends. My parents even talked to themselves in full-fledged question-and-answer format when engaged in tasks such as cooking, cleaning, or trying to find something, and that was a trait I unconsciously picked up as well. In Alabama, I found myself talking to… and debating with… myself often: while reacting to something on TV or peering out the window and judging my neighbors’ behavior. Eventually, I remembered there were 2 other sentient beings in the room, so I started directing my words towards Chuckie and my daughter. Chuckie usually opted to walk away from me and lay in his bed, but my daughter would look at me smiling, and I swore she seemed genuinely engaged in what I was saying. In time, I held regular “conversations” with her about just about everything. I would explain to her all the ingredients I was putting into the meal I was cooking and recount a story of how her grandmother taught me to make that dish. I’d respond to her sounds and laughter with my own interpretation of what I thought she was saying (“Oh, why THANK YOU! I think I am a pretty great cook too!”). On our daily walks I described to her all the birds, trees and flowers we encountered, and she’d look, smile, and vocalize in response. I would speak a bit slower and in an upbeat tone, but otherwise I used the same words when talking to her as I’d use if I was talking to another college-educated adult. While my primary motivation for all of this conversation was to allay my own boredom, I figured talking to her that much could help her learn to speak earlier.

While this clearly is not a scientific conclusion, I can report that by the time she was 6 months old my daughter could follow most directives we gave her such as “get the ball” or “put that down” (although “go to sleep” eluded her), and could correctly point in his direction when asked “Where’s Chuckie?” She was walking by 9 months old and could say basic words like “hi” and “bye-bye” (and wave), and “more”, which she used to request anything from food, to milk, or for Elmo to return to the TV screen after Sesame Street ended. By 2 years old she was telling us reasonably comprehensible stories, and she started reading and writing at 3 years old.

A recent video of a father and his 18-month old son having a “conversation” about a TV show went viral, and prompted me to revisit the impact of talking to young children on their intellectual development. In fact, research indicates that chatting with infants improves their language skills and cognitive development.

Quality, Quantity, or Conversation: Which is best?

There are benefits to consistently exposing young children to a high quantity of words and language, as the repetition helps them become familiar with certain words and the rules and cadence of speech. The seminal study published in 1995 by psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley found that 3 year old children of parents with higher income and more years of education had vocabularies that were twice as expansive as their peers from low income households with parents with less education, and that disparity mirrored the difference between the respective parents’ vocabularies. Hart and Risley determined that on average, by 4 years of age children from higher socioeconomic households were exposed to over 30 million more words than their peers from low income households. They also found that by age 4, children from higher income households received on average 560,000 more instances of encouraging feedback than discouraging feedback, compared to an average 4 year old from a low income home having 125,000 more instances of discouraging feedback than encouragements. These findings highlighted that children’s language development is influenced by various factors. While there is an association with the quantity of words a child hears and their language development, the quality, or substance of those words may play a more significant role. Hart and Risley noted a positive correlation between the type of words said to children (encouraging vs. discouraging) and the children’s language progress. Recent research supports the quality argument by showing that engaging children in conversational exchanges rather than unilaterally talking to them is better for their language and brain development. A 2018 study in Psychological Science shows that conversational exchanges – or turns – with adults that allow children to practice the art of conversing with another person, formulate meaningful responses, learn new words in context, and get feedback from adults in real time were found to cause greater development in the parts of the brain that support language, independent of socioeconomic status, the child’s cognitive ability, or the quantity of words spoken to the child by adults.1

So, like the dad in the above video, interpret that 2 year old babble as the brilliant pronouncement that we all know it is, and thank your child for sharing such insightful commentary with you. Keep the conversation going for as long as possible, because as you do you are helping your child build a cache of words and language skills that will support her development for her lifetime.

 

  1. Romeo, R. R., Leonard, J. A., Robinson, S. T., West, M. R., Mackey, A. P., Rowe, M. L., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2018). Beyond the 30-Million-Word Gap: Children’s Conversational Exposure Is Associated With Language-Related Brain Function. Psychological Science, 29(5), 700–710. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797617742725

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The views reflected in this blog are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.

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