What Influences Language Development in Children?


By Catherine A. SandersonAmherst College

It’s not just talking and reading to kids that boosts language development. A 2018 study found that what’s most important is talking with them, or what the researchers call conversational turns. In fact, this study found that it is the number of two-way conversational turns a child experiences that best accounts for differences in their vocabulary and brain development.

Parents talking with their baby
Talking with babies is very effective in their language development. (Image: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

Are Family Wealth and Language Development Related?

Anne Fernald, a psychology professor at Stanford University, conducted a study in two communities in Northern California. First, she designed a study to measure how quickly toddlers process language. Kids sit on their mother’s lap and are then shown two images such as a dog and a ball. A recorded voice then says, “Look at the ball,” and the child’s reaction is recorded on video. Researchers then review the video frame by frame to determine the exact moment that the child’s gaze shifts toward the named objects.

Now, she conducted this language processing speed test with two distinct groups of 18-month-old kids. One group consisted of 20 children who lived near the Stanford campus. This is a really expensive area in which to live. The other group consisted of 20 children living in a city a few hours north of Stanford, where the median household income and education are much lower on average.

The researchers tested the kids in both groups when they were 18 months old, and then again six months later to see how language skills had changed over time. Can you predict what they found?

The Importance of Talking

First, at the age of 18 months old, the toddlers living in the wealthier community turned to the correct object in about 750 milliseconds. The toddlers living in the poorer community were about 200 milliseconds slower. And this is actually a huge difference! Studies show that faster mental processing speed frees up additional cognitive resources. 

Happy mother holding her baby
Children who spend most of their time interacting with their parents learn language more rapidly. (Image: Yuganov Konstantin/Shutterstock)

And this same gap was seen six months later. Both groups of kids got faster with age, but at age two, the kids from the poorer community were basically processing at the same speed that the kids from the wealthier community were showing at 18 months. So, even within their first two years of life, babies from wealthier families are showing about a six-month advantage over kids from a poorer community.

And this gap continues and widens over the next few years. Early learning of more words helps with faster learning of additional new words, faster reading, faster solving of math problems, and so on. All this means that the initial disadvantages for kids from poorer communities snowball, so that they are starting kindergarten well behind their peers from wealthier areas. 

But. when parents understand the importance of talking to babies, they can start using more language, even in simple ways such as describing the different steps you are taking in making dinner or things you see outside a window.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to PsychologyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

How to Teach More Words to Kids

Now, there’s a very important question busy parents often wonder about: Does it have to be hearing language from actual people, from parents or caregivers? To test this question, Judy DeLoache, a professor at the University of Virginia, examined how well babies—age 12 to 18 months—could learn new words from a Smart Baby DVD that supposedly would teach babies 25 new words.

She divided babies at random into one of four groups. Some of the babies watched the video alone at least five times a week for a month. Other babies watched the DVD together with their parents but their parents didn’t interact with them at all while watching. 

Other babies didn’t see the DVD at all, but their parents were given a list of the 25 words and told to try to teach their babies these new words in whatever way they wanted. Then they had a fourth group of babies who didn’t receive a video and whose parents weren’t given any instructions—the control group.

After four weeks, children whose parents had been told to teach them the words any way they wanted had learned the most new words. This study provides further evidence that interaction with live people is what helps with learning language, not just passively watching and hearing a recording.

Reading to Kids Is Important 

Parents reading a book to their little baby
Reading stories loudly for babies activates Broca’s area in their brains. (Image: Ground Picture/Shutterstock)

Fascinating brain research from 2015 provides really important insight into how hearing language from live people in your environment is so beneficial. Research using fMRI brain scans on children who are listening to a parent read a story shows that simply hearing a parent read a story activates a part of the brain known as Broca’s area, one of the parts of the brain responsible for language.

And for children whose parents read to them more often, what’s even more interesting is what happens when they hear a story read aloud while they are in a fMRI scanner. Those children show greater activation in the parietal-temporal-occipital association cortex, a part of the brain responsible for integrating sound and visual stimulation. 

This finding tells us that children who are read to more often also get more practice in developing visual images, which probably helps them acquire language faster.

Common Questions about What Influences Language Development in Children

Q: Does family wealth influence the baby’s language development?

Based on a study, children from wealthier families are better at learning language. However, more research reveals that even children from lower-income families can show more language development if their parents learn how to regularly use language with them.

Q: What was the research of Judy Deloache?

Since hearing language can help with language development, Judy Deloache was wondering whether it has to be from live people or just passively watching and hearing a recording. The results of her study showed that it’s the interaction with live people that helps with language acquisition.

Q: What are the benefits of hearing language from live people?

Hearing language from live people can be remarkably beneficial for language development. In a 2015 research, children were listening to a parent read a story aloud while in an fMRI brain scanner. The brain scanner revealed that after reading stories for babies, the Broca’s area, which is a part of the brain responsible for language learning, becomes activated.

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