Talking to Children

How language relates to thinking is still a continuing debate among psychologists, linguists and neuroscientists. Nonetheless, there seems to be no doubt that these two are related. Children learn language first at home. Children hear words from various sources. Some are in fact directed to a child, while others are simply overheard. Of course, inside homes where there is a radio or television, these provide additional opportunities for a child to hear spoken words. The vocabulary gap at the beginning of formal schooling cause by socio-economic status is important to analyze if one desires to reduce this gap. A child's vocabulary is crucial in the early years. Its effects on a child's education are long term. In fact, the gap only widens through the years of basic education.

There are now several studies that indicate that only conversations by adults directed to a toddler have an effect on the child's vocabulary. Adults talking directly to toddlers is the only factor that has been shown to correlate with how fast a child develops vocabulary. Children talking to toddlers does not. Overheard speech does not. One of these studies is nicely summarized in a YouTube video by Laura Shneidman:

The paper "Language input and acquisition in a Mayan village: how important is directed speech?" is published in the journal Developmental Science:

The above study is independently supported by another work, this time, from researchers at Stanford University. Their paper, "Talking to Children Matters: Early Language Experience Strengthens Processing and Builds Vocabulary", is published in the journal Psychological Science:

Language acquisition is important in a child's education. Some even have this notion that learning through the mother tongue is more efficient. It is difficult to address all the various factors that may influence learning outcomes especially when these factors themselves are not really independent from each other. Some of these factors correlate with each other. Children from poor families tend to hear fewer words because adults do not talk directly to their children in these homes. In multilingual societies, the weaker languages are usually spoken inside poor households. Thus, it is indeed refreshing to see studies that allow for a clear conclusion to be drawn.

Talk to your toddler....