Babies’ language skills develop faster if their parents ‘engage in conversation’ with them rather than just talking over them, study finds
- Experts monitored the language 5-8 month old babies were exposed to at home
- They then looked at the activity in the language centres of the infant brains
- They found engaging in conversation led to different types of language growth
Parents who ‘engage in conversation’ with their babies can help improve their language development faster than simply talking when they are in the room.
Researchers from Stanford University and others studied the brains of babies aged between five and eight months while they slept inside an MRI machine.
Rather than simply overhearing adult words, parents who take it in turns to have ‘conversations’ with their babies can shape their future language abilities, they found.
Scientists say that the brain’s language networks may develop in two stages – in the womb they develop processing networks to process sound, then another network once they are a few months old to understand more complex language.
The amount and quality of the language babies are exposed to has a significant affect on their future language abilities, lead author Lucy King wrote.
An infant wears the LENA audio recording device in a pocket on the front of a special vest – this was used to record language the infant was exposed to as part of the study
Rather than simply overhearing adult words, parents who take it in turns in ‘conversation’ with their babies can shape their future language abilities, they found. Stock image
What isn’t as widely known is how the variation in this language input – back and forth communication, story telling or talking – can impact on the abilities.
Researchers are also unclear exactly how the impact of language interactive between baby and parents can have on their brain circuitry.
In the new study, scientists looked at the language five to eight-month-old babies are exposed to at home – through conversation and even stories from parents.
They recorded those conversations and linguistic input using a device called ‘Linguistic Environment Analysis’ (LENA) tool strapped to the infants.
The team behind the study then set out to measure the babies’ resting language network activity – parts of the brain linked to language – while they slept in a scanner.
The technique, known as a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), measures the small changes in blood flow that occur with brain activity.
They examined the two core language subnetworks within the brain of a baby – these are developed in the womb and in the first few months after birth.
While in the womb, babies begin developing an auditory-processing network which relates to the way the ears and brain work together to understand sound.
Babies later go onto develop another network for understanding more complex sentences, vocabulary and the meaning of words in early childhood.
Regions in each of the two language subnetworks activated together, suggesting they worked hand in hand.
Those babies who were exposed to more conversation ‘turn taking’ with their parents at home was linked with weaker connectivity in the network of the brain that they use to understand sound.
Scientists say that the brain’s language networks may develop in two stages – in the womb they develop processing networks to process sound, then another network once they are a few months old to understand more complex language. Stock image
Findings suggest brain connections can both weaken and strengthen as they are refined throughout development.
Irrespective of the socioeconomic status of the parents, how often they engaged in conversation – rather than just speaking out loud – had an impact on brain activity.
‘These results provide evidence for the role of vocal interactions with caregivers, compared to overheard adult speech, in the function of language networks in infancy,’ King wrote in the paper.
Scientists say more research could reveal how weaker connectivity relates to more conversations, influences a baby’s language development.
But the results highlight the importance of early life environments in shaping a child’s brain function and development, and the need to support parents in providing enriching environments.
The findings were published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
HOW TODDLERS DEVELOP COMMUNICATION SKILLS
Language development explodes from between the ages of two and four according to Dr Amos Grunebaum, an American obstetrician and gynaecologist.
A child’s vocabulary, understanding and communication skills flourish at around these ages, he says.
These skills are an essential foundation for how a child interacts with others and they significantly impact cognitive, social and emotional development and their future lives in school and beyond.
By the time a child reaches its second birthday it should have mastered pointing to common objects; three body parts; labelling familiar objects such as cup, dog and shoe.
Most two years olds can: follow a two step instruction; use more than 50 words – although half will be unintelligible; make phrases of two or more words; use simple plurals and personal pronouns; know the names of close friends and family.
Most three-year-olds will be able to follow two or three step commands and speak in three to four word sentences.
They should now be much easier to understand and have a vocabulary of around 200 words.
They should be inquisitive, asking many questions – why, what, who, where, when – and be able to say their name, age and gender.
They may understand place words like ‘in’, ‘on’ and ‘under’ and be able to name a best friend.
Their conversation will begin to become more interactive and two-way.
As a child transitions to preschool, their understanding is becoming much more refined.
They will begin to understand time words and order words – today, tomorrow, first, next.
They will be getting better at following more complex instructions and she should be able to hear and understand speech in a variety of settings.
Their pronunciation will be improving but she may still struggle with difficult consonant like sh, th and l.
They may begin to name letters and numbers. They may be able to retell events and keep a simple conversation going.
Their personality will begin to shine through as she chooses topics of conversation that interest her.