Monday, August 6, 2007

Baby talk: What makes the words boom?

Here’s the news on baby talk: There’s a lot less magic involved in how children master language than you might think. As described in this article, researchers have recognized for quite a while that the word acquisition of the average baby and toddler follows a pattern something like this: Sometime before the first birthday baby produces that first word – “dada” perhaps. A month or so later comes a second word. And then up to age 14 months words pop out here and there. (Remember when you were still able to keep track of your little toddler’s new words in her baby book?) Then there’s an acceleration of words and after your tiny talker is saying about 50 words – BAM, a language explosion hits, sometime around 18 months. (By the way, these are all averages so if you’ve got a stubbornly quiet 2-year-old, don’t worry. You might even have a genius on your hands. Many sources report that Albert Einstein didn’t start talking until 3 and was still speaking hesitantly at age 9. So what’s coming out of the mouth is not necessarily an indicator of what’s inside the noggin.)

Scientists used to hypothesize that there might be some special brain mechanism that triggered the word spurt. Not so, says University of Iowa psychology professor Bob McMurray. He argues that the language boom is just the result of a lot of quiet, under-the-radar work your toddler has been doing to learn word meanings ever since he was a baby. (He’s basing his theory on some fancy computer modeling that seems to help us realize what should have been obvious all along: Kids are learning all the time but not all of that learning is immediately evident to us as observers – and listeners.)

The implication for parents: Talk and read as much as possible with your little ones (no Baby Einstein videos necessary) starting from a very early age. And go ahead and put your adult vocabulary (minus the profanity) to practice with your kids. As McMurray says: “Children are soaking up everything. You might use ‘serendipity’ to a child. It will take that child maybe hundreds of exposures, or thousands, to learn what ‘serendipity’ means. So why not start early?”

Although I assume 3-week-old Owen isn’t really working on word comprehension much at this point, he and I both seem to enjoy our days together more when I talk about what I’m doing. There’s at least a connection through the sound of my voice. And it makes some of the chores of newborn-raising and general housekeeping feel less like monotony to me.

For Will, who has hit the “why?” phase and become an incessant questioner about all details of life, long-winded, happy-to-explain answers are the best medicine. And when he wants it, which is most of the time, we repeat those answers and elaborate on them for as long as he remains curious --or until we’re able to steer him toward yet another topic. I’m learning from him what it means to love learning, all over again.

Any insights on the langauge learning or the general jabbering of your own children? Or stories from your own childhood?


April said...

Speaking of baby einstein videos and language acquisition, Rob ran across an interesting article today. This quote provides a good summary: "In a study published today in the Journal of Pediatrics, researchers found that, among babies ages 8 months to 16 months, every hour spent daily watching programs such as "Brainy Baby" or "Baby Einstein" translated into six to eight fewer words in their vocabularies as compared with other children their age."
This is from

Annie Addington said...

Thanks for sending that along. Good to have some science pointing specifically at Baby Einstein videos. I think many parents assume that "that kind" of tv is developmentally appropriate and beneficial just because it's marketed that way. The link you sent didn't work for me by the time I checked the post. Anyone else reading this, try finding the article at

PeggyM said...

Hi. I found your blog by virtue of the keywords preschool and reading! I'm a co-founder of a magazine for preschoolers and we've posted some other interesting statistics about how talking to your child makes a measurable difference - http://bluelakepublishing.

If you are interested, I'd love to sign up Will for a trial subscription to our magazine -- some good old fashioned reading material with modern day look and feel. You can read stories from other subscribers here There are also links to our website and a way to contact me directly.