Another heard less than 600 words in 10 hours.
"I'm speaking 120 words a minute, so that's 30 seconds (of direct interaction) an hour for 10 hours. That's a very meager diet of language. This child isn't getting much opportunity to practice understanding and isn't hearing many words," she said.
And practice, Fernald found, makes all the difference.
The overall results from this study came after a follow-up test five months later for the same 29 children. Fernald found that the children who had more child-directed speech had progressed further in their language development by age 2 than those who did not.
For Fernald, this is the silver lining.
Learning from birth
"The second study is the good news, which is that SES (socioeconomic status) is not destiny," Fernald said.
This study was telling, she said, because the entire sample was taken from low-income families that struggled with poverty and both educational and economic limitations.
"Yet some of them were very engaged with their kids," Fernald said. "Children whose mothers spent time talking with them at their level, in an engaged and supportive way, did better."
The point, she said, is that even mothers who have minimal education and income can contribute to the language development of their children by engaging them in conversation.
Because language begins at birth.
"Even though you don't see a child understanding anything, they are absorbing information about their language that is really important for later development," Fernald said. "That little brain is very busy wiring up circuits for language that will build a foundation for language."
And since that six month gap can only increase, putting kids even further behind at the onset of their education, Fernald encourages parents to let their children hear more language directed toward them.
"A critical factor in (language) development is how much language you hear," she said. "How much practice you get interpreting speech, like any other skill. If nobody's talking to you who will you learn to understand very quickly?"
Several mothers from Fernald's second study simply weren't aware of the importance of speaking directly to their developing child, adopting the mindset of, "Well, when the child starts to talk, I'll answer."
Changing the family dynamic
One caveat Fernald offers to the child-directed speech solution is that change can be a difficult leaf to turn.
"The culture of talk in a family is very different from family to family. In some families, the TV is on all the time. Some people want it that way," she said. "And that's going to be a factor. But it may be at the expense of interacting with a child. There are all sorts of things to think about changing to optimize this input to a child."
Reading to a child 10 minutes a day. However, she defines reading as an interactive experience of pointing out pictures and getting the child to respond by reading it over and over.
"Ten minutes of reading every day adds up to 60 hours a year. It's not an impossible task to add a meaningful amount of language experience even to a busy life, because it has got to be a priority," Fernald said.
Emmilie Buchanan-Whitlock is an intern for the Deseret News with Mormon Times. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho. Contact her by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: emmiliewhitlock
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