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October 27, 2014 at 2:17 PM

Guest: When speaking to infants, aim for quality over quantity

Tracy Cutchlow

Tracy Cutchlow

Corrected version

Here’s one thing you can do to jumpstart your child’s literacy skills, whether or not Seattle voters approve one of the two early learning measures on the November ballot.

One of the most important ways you can interact with your infant is simple: Talk. A lot. If you do, you greatly increase your baby’s future language skills. That includes vocabulary, rate of vocabulary growth, listening, speaking, semantics, syntax and, later, reading comprehension. The amount of talk that gets these results, according to a landmark study? Two-thousand, one hundred words per hour.

That number freaked me out. So I dug into the research as I wrote my new book, “Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science.” Here’s the story:

Betty Hart tried everything she could think of to improve the vocabularies of the 4-year-olds in the low-income preschool where she was teaching. She couldn’t do it. Finally, she and Todd Risley, her graduate supervisor at the University of Kansas, figured out that, by age 4, it was too late.

They wanted to know why.

So they followed 42 families and recorded every word they said — for one hour per month, over two-and-a-half years. It took six years to transcribe the resulting 1,300 hours of tapes. Hart and Risley then analyzed the differences in the way rich and poor parents speak with their children, who were age 1 or 2 at the start of the study. The researchers studied the quality of the talking from many angles. Did the mix of nouns and verbs matter? The vocabulary level? Whether the talk was positive or negative?

The number of words turned out to be the most interesting variable:

  • A child in a family on welfare heard an average of 600 words an hour, whereas a child in a professional family heard 2,100 words an hour.
  • By age 4, children of professional parents had heard 45 million words addressed to them; children in poor families had heard 13 million. No wonder poor kids were behind in vocabulary and speech acquisition.
  • Children’s language skills at age 3 predicted their language skills at age 9 or 10.

How can parents talk so much? As it turns out, 2,100 words an hour does not equal a stream of constant chatter. It’s about 15 minutes’ worth of talking spread over an hour. Parents in the study weren’t riffing on the theory of relativity, either. Parents tend to speak in chunks averaging only four words: “Hi, beautiful baby.” “Who’s that in the mirror? Is that you?” “Where are your shoes?”

That seems doable.

How you talk is even more key, according to new research from Patricia Kuhl and Adrián García-Sierra at the University of Washington’s Institute of Learning and Brain Sciences, and Nairán Ramírez-Esparza from the University of Connecticut.

A computer monitor displays a colorful array of brain connections recently at a University of Washington research lab. The UW is at the forefront of brain research that’s illuminating what happens inside the brain as young children learn to speak, listen, read and write. Photo by Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times.

A computer monitor displays a colorful array of brain connections recently at a University of Washington research lab. The UW is at the forefront of brain research that’s illuminating what happens inside the brain as young children learn to speak, listen, read and write. Photo by Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times.

Rather than talking nonstop at your child, you want to snuggle in close, engage baby in whatever you’re doing, and respond to baby’s coos. The brain is electrified by face-to-face interaction, Kuhl has shown. The presence or absence of that social connection, she argues, acts as a gate in the brain to learning language.

Finally, give in to your natural inclination to speak in that singsongy tone of voice called “parentese.”

To your partner you might grumble: Morning. Hope you made coffee.

To your baby you might say brightly: Oh good morn-ing! I bet yooou could use a new diiia-per!

Try it. You’ll notice that you speak more slowly in parentese, and your pitch rises. Each vowel and word becomes more distinct, which makes them easier for baby to discern. Speaking this way—especially in baby’s first 18 months — helps your baby pick out, imitate, and ultimately learn parts of language.

Which is likely why infants prefer hearing parentese:

  • Babies’ heart rates increased when they heard parentese, even in a foreign language.
  • At 5 months old, babies smiled more at approvals and looked worried at disapprovals in parentese.
  • At 12 months old, babies asked to look at a picture did so more often when asked in parentese.

Talking with your baby in these ways — frequently, directly, singsongy — may feel ridiculous at first. After all, your newborn isn’t exactly talking back. But the long-term benefits speak for themselves.

Tracy Cutchlow is the author of “Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science.” She lives near the Space Needle with her husband and daughter.

Related:

Correction: The original version of this post, published at 2:17 p.m. Oct. 27, was updated at 1:55 p.m. Oct. 28. The original post misidentified Adrián García-Sierra’s employer. He is a researcher at the University of Washington.

Comments | More in Guest opinion, Opinion | Topics: early education, Tracy Cutchlow

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