There’s been a lot of talk about early language development lately: from programs promising they’ll “teach your baby to read” to new research indicating a correlation between teaching hearing babies to use sign language and increased IQs. At the heart of language enrichment—and possibly higher IQs—however, is something simple and essential: regular interaction with, and lots of talking to, your little one.
A classic study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley at the University of Kansas demonstrated a significant gap between the amount of language heard by underprivileged children compared to children of affluent parents. Underprivileged children heard about 600 words per hour, while children of professionals heard 2,100 words per hour (or roughly three times more words than children from underprivileged households). This difference revealed that by the age of three, there exists a 30-million word gap between the amount of language heard by children in welfare families versus children of professionals.
This discrepancy in language exposure from birth to age three, in turn, is related to differences between these two groups at ages nine and ten years in areas such as listening skills, syntax and reading comprehension. The researchers concluded that the variation in children’s IQs and language abilities is related to how much parents speak to their children from birth to age three years. To quote the researchers: “with few exceptions, the more parents talked to their children, the faster the children’s vocabularies were growing and the higher the children’s IQ test scores at age three and later.”
Now in reality, additional circumstance probably plays a role here. However, all things considered, language certainly has an impact on child development! And it is not the complexity of language that matters, but the amount of language that children hear.
Have we become less connected?
The Hart and Risley study was published 16 years ago, following a decade of data analysis. Consequently, these data are over 26 years old. As I reread this study recently, I wondered if professional parents are still as talkative to their babies as they were in the past. Has enthusiasm about the computer and educational programming (V-Tech toys, Baby Einstein) superseded parent-baby face time and communication? Are children spending more time in the car tuning out their parents and instead watching DVDs? Are professional parents multi-tasking more, causing their babies to compete with iPhones, iPads and the internet for parental attention? No data that I know of has investigated these potential trends. However a review of basic language stimulation may be in order for today’s professional parents. The long-term dividend is a child ready to succeed in school and a stronger relationship with you!
Tips for language stimulation for babies
-Make time each day to play on the floor with your baby. Follow his lead and describe his actions. Remember to make eye contact.
-Read to your baby each day.
-Give your baby an opportunity to use speech or gestures to communicate (do this all day, not just during play sessions). Encourage him to point to things on walks. Say “look at the bird,” and point. Help him to point by isolating his finger and pointing with his finger.
-Encourage functional communication. If you know he wants a cracker, hold up a cracker and something else and say which do you want? Encourage him to indicate by reaching. Encourage waiving bye-bye and other gestures by modeling them.
-Sing gesture songs like Itsy bitsy spider. Dance to music, stomp your feet and play ring around the roses.
-Encourage nonsense syllables and play with language. Bang a drum together and say “Boom boom.”
–Buy a play farm or plastic animals and make the animal sounds.
-Turn off the TV and computer. Your baby does not really grow much from this sort of stimulation.
-Try to reduce your multi tasking. Put down the technology and be with your child.
-Remember to talk, talk, talk in the car, on walks, at the grocery store.
Show baby how much you love her by looking her in the eyes when you talk and holding her close. Nothing makes a baby smarter than your attention and love!
Written by Pat Blackwell, Ph.D.