Clarifying the Science of Building Early Language Skills

In today's Science Times, Jane E. Brody conveys a dozen tips on how to develop infants' and toddlers' acquisition of language. She makes several very important points – the most vital one being don't listen to an iPod while pushing your infant in a stroller, because you can't hear the infant's vocalizations and then respond accordingly. However, several other tips in the article contradict the scientific record and need clarification.

1. Baby Talk.
Brody's article suggests that when parents use Baby Talk, it confuses toddlers. We've heard this concern often, but the science is remarkably clear on this point – Baby Talk clarifies language for kids, well into their second year. The scientific term for the speech pattern of Baby Talk is parentese – the emotional affect is giddily upbeat and the vowels are stretched, with highly-exaggerated pitch contours.** It's not cultural – it's almost universal. The phonetic qualities help infants and toddlers distinguish discrete sounds. Many studies by Dr. Jennifer Schwade of Cornell University have shown that infants and tots prefer parentese – it engages them more, and they'll crawl to a person speaking parentese rather than to a person speaking the same sentences in a typical adult speech pattern. In addition, Schwade's work has shown repeatedly that children learn new words better when parentese is employed.

2. Pointing Out Familiar Objects
As Brody notes, parents help their tots learn nouns by labelling things around the house or around the neighborhood. However, the newest science – again, from Schwade's team at Cornell – suggests this works dramatically better when it's not parent-driven, but child-driven. This means a parent should notice what a child is looking at, pointing at, and looking at while babbling. When the tot's eyes are on the object and studying it, label it for him immediately. This helps their brain encode the connection between what they see and what they hear. Unfortunately, many parents are trying to overdo it – they label things that their toddler isn't even looking at yet, or they ignore what their child is observing to distract them with some other object the parent thinks is more important.

3. Guessing at What Your Tot is Saying
From nine months old to two years old, many children cannot enunciate a full word for what they want or are looking at. So parents, naturally, guess. When the child is on the older side, parents' guesses can be very accurate, and Brody's right to point out that children should always hear the fully-enunciated, proper word sound. However, when tots are on the younger side, guessing at their meaning commonly leads to the problem of criss-crossed labelling. "Beh" gets mistaken by parents as "bottle," "brother," or blanket," or "ball," when in fact it may mean none of those – sounds that start with "b" and "d" are the easiest consonant-vowel sounds for infants to make, because they can control the articulator muscles in their vocal tract first. Parents, trying to help, guess at what they think the child is trying to say, and end up confusing the baby with a list of words. The resultant criss-cross labelling stunts vocabulary growth, according to research by Schwade. Again, the answer is to focus less on the baby's utterance and more on the baby's eyes to get a clue what she's after.

4. Bilingual Homes
Recent studies from the National Institute for Early Education Research are proving that children in bilingual classrooms – where one teacher comes in Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, speaking only in Spanish, while another teacher speaks in English on Tuesdays and Thursdays – are not falling behind their peers in either language. The kids are learning both languages without any compromise. This suggests the optimal way for children to learn two languages in the home is for one parent to use one language, exclusively, while the other parent uses the second language. Now, while that might be optimal, Brody's article goes too far in saying that children raised in bilingual homes don't suffer any language delay. The research is very mixed, and most studies still show some delay resulting from bilingual homes. This doesn't mean that parents shouldn't do it. Learning two languages is great for kids and research also suggests bilingual kids have better executive function – as their brain learns to switch back and forth between languages, this helps them switch back and forth between tasks subjects, and classes, too.


** Note that we aren't talking about when parents actually try to sound like babies, using made up words, or when they babble nonsense back the babies. Instead, we're talking about the way adults naturally alter their pattern of speech when speaking to babies. We haven't seen any research on the effect of the other kind of baby talk – when an adult is trying to sound like a child. For the youngest of infants, even this might be beneficial, because at this point, the infants don't understand the words; they are still mastering the call-and-response pattern of communication. However, after a month or two, the research would indicate that consistent use of made-up words (e.g. as a commenter mentioned "cookie-wookie") could likely slow vocabulary acquisition, because it would be giving a kid both real and fake words to learn, without a distinction which was which, and that would be confusing to the child.