It’s easy to take for granted the babbling exchanges between parents and their new babies. Even the most serious of adults can be completely disarmed and find themselves baby talking to beat the band when they are met with the bills and coos of a little one. It’s just infectious silliness, right? Well, not so fast. According to Dana Suskind, M.D., implant cochlear surgeon, even the earliest words and sounds shared with an infant can begin laying the groundwork for their developing language skills and academic achievement.
Dr. Suskind, who performed cochlear implants at the University of Chicago, found that while implant technology could help even profoundly deaf children hear, her young recipients of the surgery developed language skills at widely different rates. While following up with her patients’ progress, she discovered that the kids who received the implants but struggled to develop language often did so because their parents didn’t talk to them as much as their growing brains required. The kids who thrived and quickly began picking up language skills, more often lived in households where they heard lots and lots of words – even millions and millions of words.
In her new book (reviewed in this issue of “BookShelf,”) Thirty Million Words: Building A Child’s Brain, Dr. Suskind relates her journey of discovery about the impact that being exposed to words has on the developing brain, especially in children 0 to 3 years old. Her insights led her to create her Thirty Million Words Initiative at the University of Chicago. The title of the book and her subsequent project were based on a study done about 30 years ago by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, who followed a group of children between 0 and 3 years old from all socioeconomic backgrounds. They found that at the end of age 3 many children from disadvantaged backgrounds heard 30 million fewer words than those children from more affluent backgrounds – thus setting up what Hart and Risley called “the 30 million word gap.” The findings not only applied to differences in vocabulary, but also differences in subsequent IQ and test scores. But to be clear, these differences were based not on genetic predisposal for a certain level of intelligence but on the direct influences of environment, essentially the time the parents spent talking to their children.
The reasons for these differences were more complex than just the income levels and amount of education of the parents, they were also influenced by the stressors of poverty, the stability or lack of stability of jobs, childcare or home life. And, the child’s language skills development was not only affected by the number of words they heard, but the tone of what was said (whether it was positive or negative), and whether the parents or other adults actually engaged with the baby or toddler when they were speaking to them.
In the first three years of life a child experiences faster and more aggressive brain growth than during any other time of their lives. It is when 80 to 85 percent of the physical brain develops. Probably more than any other organ, the brain is basically unformed when we are born. It is dependent on the environment for input. (Think of the robotic character Number 5 in the 1980s comedy film “Short Circuit,” and his quest for more input.) As babies, we all need constant input in order to help us explore and understand the world around us and learn to communicate with others.
So what can parents and other caregivers do to make sure their child is given the opportunity to reach his or her intellectual and social potential? It is all about the words – talking to the baby or child, engaging with the baby, responding when he or she makes sounds and reading to them. The 30 Million Word Initiative uses “The 3 Ts” to help break it all down:
Tune in – by paying attention to what your child is communicating to you
Talk more – with your child using descriptive words to build his vocabulary.
Take turns – by encouraging your child to respond to your words and actions.
In Thirty Million Words Dr. Suskind delivers a powerful message to parents…that the greatest gift we can give our children is free. No matter our socioeconomic status, our income or level of education, we as parents can have a tremendous impact on our child’s developing brain and future success…all it takes is words…lots and lots of words. Whether we sing them, read them, or just carry on a conversation with them, the words we share with our children are feeding their hungry brains with the oral nourishment they need to master the skills of language and learning, and building the groundwork for a successful and fulfilling life.