How Talking to Children Nurtures Language Development Across SES and Culture

Friday, 14 February 2014
Columbus KL (Hyatt Regency Chicago)
Anne Fernald , Stanford University, Stanford, CA
Children of economically and educationally disadvantaged parents typically enter school with poorer language skills than their more privileged counterparts. By some measures, 5-year-old children of lower socioeconomic status (SES) score two years behind on standardized language development tests by the time they enter school. We will show that the language gap between rich and poor children begins to emerge in infancy.  In a longitudinal study we examined developmental changes in language proficiency in English-learning infants from higher- and lower-SES families. Significant SES differences in both vocabulary and real-time language processing efficiency were already evident at age 18 months.  By age 24 months, there was a 6-month gap between SES groups in processing skills critical to language development.  Such a large disparity cannot be dismissed as a transitory delay, given that differences in trajectories of language growth established by age 3 years tend to persist and are predictive of later school success or failure.  Where do such early differences among children come from, and what can be done to improve these outcomes? One critical factor is that parents differ in the amount of language stimulation they provide their infants at home.  We present evidence showing that parents who talk more with their children in an engaging and supportive way have children who are more likely to develop their full intellectual potential than are those who hear less child-directed speech. Using the LENATM technology to make all-day recordings of low SES Spanish-learning children in their home environment, we found striking variability in how much parents talked to their children.  Infants who heard more child-directed speech developed greater efficiency in language processing and learned new words more quickly. Our results indicate that exposure to child-directed speech - but not to overheard speech - sharpens infants’ language processing skills, with cascading benefits for vocabulary learning.  However, the conclusion that parents should use more and richer language with infants to support early learning meets with opposition in some cultures.  Cross-cultural research in some West African societies reveals social norms against making eye contact with or talking to an infant, practices viewed as potentially harmful rather than as beneficial to the young child.  We discuss the challenges of developing culturally sensitive interventions to help parents understand their critical role in actively nurturing young children’s brain development and language growth.