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Study shows speaking to children helps foster language development

Possible learning barriers from being raised in a low-income home can be overcome by an age-old skill: conversation.
Possible learning barriers from being raised in a low-income home can be overcome by an age-old skill: conversation.

A recent Stanford University study shows that children from lower socioeconomic status may be as much as six months behind their peers in language proficiency by age 2 — but according to Anne Fernald, it's not as troublesome as it may seem.

Talking directly to children is the antidote.

Fernald, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford, conducted a study published last spring that explored the differences between language development among polar ends of the socioeconomic spectrum.

By comparing language development in 18-month-olds from both high- and low-income families, she determined that future academic success is developing before the child ever steps foot into the classroom.

"The differences emerge very early, and emerge in measures that we know have predictive validity. In other words, we know these are characteristics of language proficiency that predict later language skill and with that, school success," Fernald said.

In fact, language begins from birth, as does the influence parents have on their child's language comprehension, .

The language-processing gap

Fernald first tested twenty 18-month-old children from an affluent part of the San Francisco Bay Area by showing them two simple pictures such as a dog and a baby. Through exclusively vocal commands, such as "where is the dog?" or "where is the baby?" researchers, using video recording, were able to measure the child's eye movement in response to the prompt.

Researches recorded how fast children moved their eyes towards the correct picture. Six months later, she ran follow-up tests to track the children's development.

Fernald additionally ran the same tests on twenty eight 18-month-old children from low-income homes near the Bay Area, as well as the follow-up tests six months later.

The results, Fernald said, were a little disheartening.

Children from lower socioeconomic conditions were six months behind their peers from a higher SES background in terms of language processing proficiency, even though they had both increased in speed.

"A 15-month-old child will wait until after the word is over and then shift. An 18-month-old child is already shifting by the end of the word 'baby.' At 24 months, all the child needs is 'where's the ba-' if they are looking at the dog, they know they are in the wrong place so they start to shift even earlier," Fernald said of her middle-class participants.

She called this efficiency in processing spoken words and explained that it flourished during the second and third year of a child's development.

"It develops much more quickly in more advantaged children," she said.

However, the results from a second study Fernald conducted among 29 19-month-old children from lower-socioeconomic homes in the Bay Area Latino community provide reassurance.

The power of parental speech

Fernald recorded the amount of parent-to-child interaction for 10 hours by attaching a voice recorder to the child's T-shirt.

Extra dialogue, such as the television in the background, or an adult talking on a cellphone was omitted from the total words the child heard. Fernald wanted to measure the effect of words spoken directly to the child.

Fernald was looking specifically for something she calls "child-directed speech" and she thinks it is the most telling clue in how children learn to speak. Two extremes from the results helped strenthen her hypothesis.

One child she observed heard 12,000 words in 10 hours from her caregiver.

Another heard less than 600 words in 10 hours.

"I'm speaking 120 words a minute, so that's 30 seconds (of direct interaction) an hour for 10 hours. That's a very meager diet of language. This child isn't getting much opportunity to practice understanding and isn't hearing many words," she said.

And practice, Fernald found, makes all the difference.

The overall results from this study came after a follow-up test five months later for the same 29 children. Fernald found that the children who had more child-directed speech had progressed further in their language development by age 2 than those who did not.

For Fernald, this is the silver lining.

Learning from birth

"The second study is the good news, which is that SES (socioeconomic status) is not destiny," Fernald said.

This study was telling, she said, because the entire sample was taken from low-income families that struggled with poverty and both educational and economic limitations.

"Yet some of them were very engaged with their kids," Fernald said. "Children whose mothers spent time talking with them at their level, in an engaged and supportive way, did better."

The point, she said, is that even mothers who have minimal education and income can contribute to the language development of their children by engaging them in conversation.

Because language begins at birth.

"Even though you don't see a child understanding anything, they are absorbing information about their language that is really important for later development," Fernald said. "That little brain is very busy wiring up circuits for language that will build a foundation for language."

And since that six month gap can only increase, putting kids even further behind at the onset of their education, Fernald encourages parents to let their children hear more language directed toward them.

"A critical factor in (language) development is how much language you hear," she said. "How much practice you get interpreting speech, like any other skill. If nobody's talking to you who will you learn to understand very quickly?"

Several mothers from Fernald's second study simply weren't aware of the importance of speaking directly to their developing child, adopting the mindset of, "Well, when the child starts to talk, I'll answer."

Changing the family dynamic

One caveat Fernald offers to the child-directed speech solution is that change can be a difficult leaf to turn.

"The culture of talk in a family is very different from family to family. In some families, the TV is on all the time. Some people want it that way," she said. "And that's going to be a factor. But it may be at the expense of interacting with a child. There are all sorts of things to think about changing to optimize this input to a child."

Her advice?

Reading to a child 10 minutes a day. However, she defines reading as an interactive experience of pointing out pictures and getting the child to respond by reading it over and over.

"Ten minutes of reading every day adds up to 60 hours a year. It's not an impossible task to add a meaningful amount of language experience even to a busy life, because it has got to be a priority," Fernald said.

Emmilie Buchanan-Whitlock is an intern for the Deseret News with Mormon Times. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho. Contact her by email: or on Twitter: emmiliewhitlock