There’s well-known research on “word gap” that shows "a child from a better-off, more-educated family is likely to hear 30 million more words in the first three years of life than a child from a less-well-off family." But experts have always advised parents not to focus on a child’s word count. Instead, it's all about finding time for even brief high-quality, loving interactions. New research, conducted by cognitive scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, backs it up.
MIT scientists found that even something as simple as engaging in back-and-forth conversations with a parent can boost a child’s language and brain development. “The important thing is not just to talk to your child, but to talk WITH your child. It’s not just about dumping language into your child’s brain, but to actually carry on a conversation with them,” said Rachel Romeo, the lead author of the study, which was published in the journal Psychological Science.
With the parents’ permission, the study made voice recordings of the kids ages 4 and 6 years old to see the aspects of their everyday communication for two days. It included the conversations the preschoolers had with their parents and the number of words they said and heard in a day.
The researchers also took MRI scans of the kids' brains to identify differences in the brain's response to language. While the kids were listening to stories, the scientists found that the part of the brain involved in speech and language was much more active in kids who experienced back-and-forth conversation with their parents, compared to those who engaged less in this interaction. And this was true regardless of a family's socio-economic status.
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“It’s almost magical how parental conversation appears to influence the biological growth of the brain,” said John Gabrieli, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences and the senior author of the study.
Gabrieli and the researchers believe that the interactive dialogue or this back-and-forth exchange gives the child the much-needed opportunity to practice her communication skills. Your toddler gets to practice understanding what a person is saying and then how to respond appropriately — essential components not just in communication but social skills as well.
Now, answering your child's questions with “kasi gano’n eh” or “kasi sabi ko” doesn't count as a meaningful back-and-forth interaction (although it's an inevitable response when the questions are endless, and you've got to wake up at dawn). But a simple and brief reply — even if you don’t know the answer — can be enough.
Something like: “We can look it up later, but the sky is blue when the sun is out, gray when it’s raining and dark when it’s night. Sometimes it’s also orange.” Then, try throwing a question back. “The sky is pretty, isn’t it? What color do you like seeing it?”
“You can talk to a child until you’re blue in the face, but if you’re not engaging with the child and having a conversational duet about what the child is interested in, you’re not going to give the child the language processing skills that they need,” said Roberta Golinkoff, a professor of education at the University of Delaware School of Education.
“If you can get the child to participate, not just listen, that will allow the child to have a better language outcome,” added Golinkoff.
Dr. Marilyn Augustyn, a behavioral pediatrician at Boston Medical Center who was not involved in the study, told WBUR.org, this latest study, "strengthens a two-part message. One, we need to talk to our children from the moment they're born, and probably in utero. And two, that language needs to come out of a relationship — and that's what this study really cements. It isn't about streaming tape to a child through the course of a day with thousands and thousands of words, because those become meaningless. It's really about the relationship."
Start back-and-forth conversations as early as when your baby starts to babble and make sounds, even when they’re not necessarily words yet, advised Harvard Graduate School of Education literacy expert Meredith Rowe and Boston Medical Center pediatrician Barry Zuckerman in a commentary published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
When she's babbling while you're feeding her, ask her if she's enjoying her breakfast. Infants only learn language through human interaction, as compared to watching the same words being said by a person on TV, said the experts.
See the full expert guide on how to talk to babies 0 to 36 months old here.