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Talking to babies makes them smarter

03/03/2014 12:00 AM

02/28/2014 3:29 PM

The sooner you start explaining the world to your baby, the better. And forget dumbed-down baby talk: Longer, more complex sentences are better.

New research shows that both how much and how well parents talk with babies and toddlers help to 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.

Experts say it’s time to move beyond those popular flash cards for tots and expand the name-game conversations where adults point to objects and repeatedly identify them with simple words or short phrases like “See the ball?” and “That’s an orange.”

“You’re building intelligence through language,” explains Stanford University psychology professor Anne Fernald. “It’s making nets of meaning that then will help the child learn new words.”

Over their heads

The idea is to connect words and meaning, so the brain becomes primed to learn through context with more advanced communication and sentences like, “Let’s put the orange in this bowl with the banana and the apple and the grapes.”

“I advise mothers to have conversations with your babies,” says 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 they still benefit from it.”

The newest research, unveiled and presented recently 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, higher quality day care or even some sort of “Let’s talk” campaign to teach new parents to stress talking, singing and reading with tots even before they can respond. The latter can be difficult for parents working multiple jobs, or who may not read well or who simply don’t know why this could be important.

The achievement gap

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 says by some measures, 5-year-olds from low-income families can lag as far as two years behind their peers in tests of language development — and that’s an achievement gap that’s difficult to overcome.

Brain scans support the link, adds Dr. Kimberly Noble of Columbia University Medical Center. Her findings suggest that 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.

But, how early does the word gap appear?

Around age 18 months, Fernald says. In comparisons of how children mentally process the language they hear, she says 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 recognizes it quickly enough, then he 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.

Child-directed speech

Fernald also 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 they overhear.

One child heard more than 12,000 words of child-directed speech in a day, while another heard a mere 670 words, Fernald says. And the youngsters who received more child-directed speech processed language more efficiently and learned words more quickly.

It’s not just quantity of speech that matters, however, it’s quality. Hoff says 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 in school.

On the horizon

Up next, scientists are testing whether programs that teach parents better ways to talk to tots really do any good. Fernald says preliminary results from one of the first — a program called Habla Conmigo (Spanish for “talk with me”) that enrolls low-income, Spanish-speaking mothers in San Jose, Calif. — are promising.

Fernald has analyzed the first 32 families of the 120 the program will enroll and the mothers who underwent the eight-week training are talking more with their toddlers and using higher-quality language than a control group of parents — and with the passage of their second birthdays, she says, the children are already demonstrating bigger vocabularies and processing language faster.

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