Talk to me
Do you remember what you talked about with your child at breakfast? Or, if your child is very young,  6 months or less, do you think it matters at all if you talk to him or her? By way of clarification, here I’m referring to “infant-directed speech” or “baby talk” as it is more commonly known, and not to orders such as “eat!” or “behave!”

Language researchers say that talking to our babies and young children actually does matter a great deal! Studies show that children need to hear about 21,000 words per day to ensure their vocabulary can develop at an appropriate pace. Moreover, their exposure to language between birth and age three is crucial for their own language development. Especially at the beginning, it’s the parents who play the biggest role in this learning process and  TV is not a good substitute! ( the American Academy of Pediatricians recommends that no child below two years of age should watch TV, ever.) This is because at an early stage, almost everything children learn they do it from their parents and only later are they influenced by peers or teachers.

study of Hurtado, Marchman and Fernald from Stanford University on links between maternal talk and children’s language shows that children who were more often spoken to by their mothers at 18 months of age, knew more words and were faster in word recognition at 24 months. Moreover, the research team found out that better language skills (processing speed and vocabulary knowledge) had important medium term impacts as they were strongly related to better school outcomes.

So, we know now that talking to a child is extremely important and it can help him or her succeed in life. But, why is it that some kids are good at learning language and others are not? And why is it that often children from low-income families fall so far behind in their language development and educational achievements? Is no one talking to them?

Recent research suggests that socioeconomic status plays an important role for language development. A study in the US by Hart and Risley shows that by the age of three, children of parents living of welfare hear three times fewer words (616/hour) than children of professional parents (2,153/hour). Moreover, the more disadvantaged kids knew half the number of words (500) then their peers (1,100). Hart and Risley call it the 30-million word gap (10 million vs. 40 million words a child has heard by the end of age three) or, more to the point, the “early catastrophe”. I don’t know about you but I feel dizzy when I read these numbers! It just seems to be so avoidable. But I also agree it might not be so obvious that talking a lot of “baby talk” to your child can make such a great difference (it wasn’t really to me until I read about it). I say it is time to turn off the TV, smartphone or other gadgets for a moment and talk to your child!

Is there any proof that explains why in lower-income families children are generally less talked to than in higher-income families? In her recent NY Times article, Tina Rosenberg tries to track down some answers. While we seem not to understand all the reasons, researcher Meredith Rowe from the University of Maryland suggests that one important factor is the parental knowledge of child development. Rowe found that low-income mothers just don’t know about the importance of talking to their babies, whereas higher-income mothers have more means to retrieve consulting services and receive a variety of information outside their family circle on what is important for their child’s development. There is a lot of evidence from poor countries indicating that poor mothers will not talk to their child until they are two years old and able to talk. Too late!

I think this is something we can work on: providing poor parents with information and guidelines on how to talk to their children and explaining them why this is so crucial. I wonder how much do parenting programs emphasize these messages.

In the US there are several initiatives that try to tackle this specific problem. For example, “Providence Talk”, mentioned by Mrs. Rosenberg, is one of 5 programs that won the Mayors Challenge in 2012, an initiative of Michael Bloomberg. Providence Talk aims to record the number of words a child hears each day (through a recording device especially developed for this purpose) and to provide feedback and coaching to the families participating in the program. This is surely an ambitious project although I think it might be difficult to scale up for a region such as Latin America and the Caribbean where there are also so many other needs for children and their families. Instead we could begin by using regular appointments with the family doctor or pediatrician to provide parents with information on language development and to ask them about their linguistic environment.

Do you know of any other initiatives in the Americas that are designed to help young children develop their full language potential?

Daniela Philipp is a consultant in the Social Protection and Health Division of the IDB. Daniela’s work focuses on health, nutrition, and early childhood development.

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