Baby Talk

Can Baby Talk Give Your Child a Head Start?
Children born into poverty conditions are usually well behind children raised in wealthier environments in many different areas of mental and emotional development.

These qualities include the ability to speak, understand and learn at every age, and the gap increases over time. This discrepancy occurs in spite of attempts to close this gap through programs like Head Start and schooling interventions. A recent study suggests that disparities in exposure to language from birth to age 3 may be an important cause of the gap. 

Research by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley at the University of Kansas found that children whose families were on welfare heard about 600 words per hour. Working-class children heard approximately 1,200 words per hour, and children from professional families heard close to 2,100 words. The implications of the study are that by age 3, a poor child would have heard 30 million fewer words in his or her home environment than a child from a professional family.

By age 3, the observed cumulative vocabulary for children in the professional families was about 1,100 words. For children from working class families, the observed cumulative vocabulary was about 750 words and for children from welfare-recipient families it was just above 500 words. Children in professional families also experienced a higher ratio of spoken encouragements versus discouragements than their working class and welfare-supported counterparts.

By age 9, researchers found that this disparity seemed to hold significance in developing overall intelligence. The greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were age 3, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school. And not only did talk from television not help, it was found to be detrimental.

Tina Rosenberg notes that other studies suggest that one reason for the difference is that poor women were unaware that it was important to talk more to their babies. This has led to a series of coaching interventions to encourage parents and nannies to talk more to their babies. A device developed by the Lena Research Foundation has facilitated these programs. A child can wear it and using speech recognition software, the device can count and source words uttered and weed out background noise.

The first large scale intervention to encourage more “baby talk” will be carried out in Providence R. I. with a $5 million grand prize from the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge. The Providence Talks Program will use the cities existing network for public health programs.  Already, nurses, mentors, therapists and social workers regularly visit pregnant women, new parents and children in their homes to provide medical attention and advice, counseling and other services.  Providence will now train these home visitors to promote family conversation.

But will it work?
Certainly the interventions are worthwhile trying, but careful evaluation will be important. There are many differences in the milieu in which poor children grow up in compared to that of well off families. Some critics warn against attributing the correlation between better academic performance and the number of words heard by age 3 as the sole critical causal factor in a child’s environment responsible for the difference. A look in on children at age 9 seemingly would have to account for all the many differences in the lives of poor children compared to those who were better off during the intervening 6 years. It has been suggested that both nature (heredity) and nurture (nutrition, stimulating environments, school experiences etc.) may be at work here—not just language. 

Although emphasizing exposure to language as the primary reason for learning gaps can be questioned, the work of Hart and Risley has recently been confirmed through a new study by Anne Fernald at Stanford University. Fernald found a language gap between children from wealthier homes and children from low-income families as early as 18 months. The study found differences in language processing speed that is linked to language learning. Fernald's research group found that children who are faster at recognizing familiar words at 18 months have larger vocabularies at age 2 and score higher on standardized tests of language and cognition in kindergarten and elementary school.

This study also suggests that a critical factor in development of intellectual potential is the amount of language stimulation that parents provide to their infants and that unfortunately some children hear very little child-directed speech. However, the study also found that the economic status of a family did not doom the children to poor language development. Some parents in low-income families were very verbally engaged with their children and these children were doing better in language development.

Recommended Solution
A recommended solution to this problem is offering free or low-cost preschool to all 4 year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. But a majority of public schoolchildren in about a third of the states come from low-income families, and just 4 percent of 3 year-olds and only 28 percent of all 4 year-olds in the United States were enrolled in state-financed preschool in the 2010-11 school year.

Information and portions of text used in this essay have been derived from the following sources:

Tina Rosenberg. The Power of Talking to Your Baby. New York Times, Sunday, April 14, 2013

Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley. Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Brookes Publishing, 1995 (4th printing, January 2003)

LENA™ Research Foundation http://www.lenababy.com/Study.aspx

Motoko Rich. Language –Gap Study Bolsters a Push for Pre-K. New York Times, October 22, 2013

Bjorn Carey Language gap between rich and poor children begins in infancy, Stanford psychologists find Stanford Report, September 25, 2013

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LENA™ Research Foundation http://www.lenababy.com/Study.aspx

Bjorn Carey Language gap between rich and poor children begins in infancy, Stanford psychologists find Stanford Report, September 25, 2013