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Direct Speech Between Child And Parent Improves Vocabulary And Language Skills

Update Date: Oct 22, 2013 03:13 PM EDT

Parents' daily interactions with their toddlers are vital learning experiences for their children. According to new research, talking more to your little ones can help them understand language more quickly and speed up their vocabulary growth process.  

"Parents need to know the importance of providing linguistic nutrition and exercise to their young children," Anne Fernald, a Stanford University psychology professor and co-author on this study, said in a news release. "By talking with them more in an engaging and supportive way, parents can nurture early brain development and build a strong foundation for language learning."

For the study, researchers observed the daily speech, which crossed paths with 29, 19-month-old toddlers from low income Latino families. In order to observe them, the researchers had the children wear a small audio recorder, which was attached to a shirt so that they could hear all the interaction that were presented to them for the day.

"The recordings were analyzed by special software, called LENA (Language Environment Analysis), which distinguishes between human speech and other sources of speech, such as television and radio, and provides a measure of each," reported Fernald. "Native Spanish speakers then listened to the recordings to differentiate adult speech directed to the child from speech the child only overheard, such as when the caregiver was on the phone or talking with another adult."

Researchers found during a 10-hour day, the amount of speech that one toddler heard varied drastically from another toddler offering a unique observation. 

"One toddler heard more than 12,000 words of child-directed speech, while another heard only 670 words during the entire day," reported the authors from Stanford.

Researchers followed up with the study results five months later and found that the toddlers who were spoken to more often had developed a quicker vocabulary growth than those who were spoken to less.

"By capturing different contexts of daily language interactions at home, we were able to show that adult speech to the child - but not speech simply overheard by the child - is important for vocabulary learning," researcher, Weisleder said. "Toddlers learn language in the context of meaningful interactions with those around them."

Aside from vocabulary growth, researchers also evaluated their adherence to language. Language processing was assessed by an exercise in which the child was shown two images and was asked to look at one of the pictures when the voice told them to. This activity was recorded by a video camera in order to capture the child's reaction. 

The videos were later viewed, which showed researchers how quickly and accurately the children understood or did not understand the difference between the objects shown to them. 

"This test showed that children who had experienced more child-directed speech were more efficient at processing language", the authors reported. "The analyses revealed a cascade of effects - those toddlers who heard more child-directed talk became faster and more reliable in interpreting speech, and it was their superior skill in processing language that then increased their success in vocabulary learning."

At the conclusion of the study, Fernald said that an important analysis was that socioeconomic status did not play a role in influencing the child's ability to process languages.

"Despite the challenges associated with living in poverty, some of these moms were really engaged with their children, and their kids were more advanced in processing efficiency and vocabulary," said Fernald.

The findings are published in the journal Psychological Science

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