Helping toddlers speak may be as simple as striking up a conversation.
Published: January 30, 2020
By: Malia Jacobson
Those were 1-year-old Dylan Janes’s first words, spoken shortly after his first birthday. (Say it with me: Awww.)
He was right on track, developmentally. According to the First Words Project at Florida State University, parents report that 12-month-olds say from one to three words. Like Dylan’s mom, Tiffany, most parents of babies have to keep the video camera constantly at hand because this milestone is as exciting as it is unpredictable. Nobody knows just when baby’s first words will tumble out. Nor does anyone know exactly what they’ll be — except maybe for baby.
Dylan’s brain was probably practicing these sounds for months before he made his heart-melting statement, according to breakthrough research from the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS) at University of Washington. As with this finding, neuroscience is providing insight into our understanding of language learning throughout childhood.
A study released last year suggests that infants’ brains are laying groundwork for early words and phrases as early as 7 months of age. Researchers used state-of-the-art brain scanning (called magnetoencephalography; it’s noninvasive and completely safe for infants) to record brain activity in the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for planning and coordinating the movements required for speech.
Brain activation patterns in 7-month-olds and 11-month-olds indicate that their brains are hard at work on speech perception and speech movements long before the little munchkins actually speak.
“What’s exciting is that we can now study early learning in a new way, using this technology,” says Sarah Roseberry Lytle, Ph.D., I-LABS director of outreach. “This imaging technology is completely silent and sits over the baby’s head like an old-fashioned hair dryer. It doesn’t require the baby to be completely still, and it doesn’t make noise that can upset them.”
This research helps support school readiness in several important ways, says I-LABS co-director Patricia K. Kuhl, Ph.D., a UW professor of speech and hearing sciences. “I-LABS is working to understand the sequence of events that helps children transition from sounds, to words, to sentences, and then to reading. We’re now working to understand the step-by-step changes in the brain that make the child ‘ready’ for reading.”
The findings suggest that so-called “parentese” — that sugar-coated, exaggerated speech parents often slip into when talking to infants (“Hoooow’s my liiittle baaaaaaaayyyyybeeee toooodaaay?”) — can benefit their speech perception at a time when new brains are rehearsing mechanics for speech, Lytle says. This doesn’t mean using baby-talk or made-up words, she notes. It means speaking distinctly and slowly to help babies understand.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK
Other new research in early learning holds some surprises for parents, too. “The critical phase for learning sounds happens in the second half of a baby’s first year,” Lytle says. If babies’ brains are particularly receptive to speech sounds during this developmental window, then hearing certain words and phrases over and over should boost language skills, and language-focused educational programming should be a baby-brain boon, right?
Except, it isn’t. Research shows that “educational” videos and television shows designed to boost infant speech development just don’t. In fact, they can actually hurt speech acquisition.
In one study, each hour per day of viewing baby DVDs was associated with a 17-point drop in word recognition for babies 8 to 16 months old. In other words, spending an additional seven hours per week parked in front of an “educational” DVD robbed six to eight words from a child’s vocabulary.
That’s significant, because the average 11-month-old boy only recognizes 16 words, according to NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.
In a study published in Pediatrics, viewing television from birth to age 2 didn’t correlate with gains in language or visual motor skills at age 3.
So why do language-focused baby DVDs — even ones based on research and noble intentions — fail to deliver? According to NurtureShock, it may be because babies learn speech partially by reading lips, and most educational programming features disembodied voice-overs that don’t allow infants to pair the auditory signal with the corresponding facial cue. At 7 months, babies can begin to segment words they hear into phonemes, forming the building blocks of language. The caveat: They can’t perform this feat unless they’re looking at a face; if they hear a word while gazing at an abstract, it sounds like so much gibberish. So hearing the word “blocks” while looking at an image of blocks has less value than hearing — and watching — a parent say the word.
So talking to your baby face-to-face is vital, and it has potential long-term implications in the acquisition and building of language and later academic success. But according to new research, it’s not enough just to send a barrage of words in baby’s direction in the parenting equivalent of a one-sided conversation. It’s important to pick up on baby’s cues, too. Researchers from New York University and the National Institutes of Health found that infants of mothers who responded to baby babble were a full six months ahead of those with less responsive moms. Echoing back a child’s vocalizations or picking up and naming an object that a child seems to be gesturing toward helps babies assign meaning to words, moving a baby toward fluent speech faster.
In a Cornell University study, 9-month-olds with mothers who responded to baby babble in a back-and-forth, conversational way picked up and mimicked speech sounds faster than babies with less responsive moms. Another Cornell study found that “object labeling” in infancy — that is, pointing to an object and naming it after a baby’s gaze meets the object — is linked to increased vocabulary in toddlerhood. The well-documented “language gap” between toddlers with larger vocabularies and those with fewer words widens over time.
To put the Cornell research into practice, observe what your baby is looking at (instead of what he’s trying to say, which is often misinterpreted, says Merryman) and
name it: “That’s the kitty” or “See that tree?” Instead of wildly guessing about what a baby wants, it’s about following a child’s lead.
Overzealous parents eager to stack the deck toward, say, a Harvard acceptance letter, take note: Researchers don’t recommend overstimulation. It’s not necessary to be in your baby’s face all day long. But responding and interacting naturally with baby in a conversational way has profound benefits, says Merryman.
“Babies don’t need specialized toys or educational programming,” she notes.
“They need responsive parents.”