When my eldest was born, my parents said to me: "He may just be a newborn, but don't forget to talk to him as much as you can. It's one of the most important things you can do for him." Now, as a first-time, new mum, I must admit I did raise my eyebrows. Surely there are a few other things that a brand new baby needs a little more than me talking to him right now? As it turns out, my parents weren't wrong. A couple of years ago, I picked up a copy of “Thirty Million Words,” by Dana Suskind, and the key message of the books is that every child has the potential to succeed both socially and academically. But this can only really happen if from an early age their parents create a positive environment for early language learning. Why, exactly? Because language plays a central role in the formation of a child's neuronal network. We’re all born with as many as 100 billion neurons, but initially these are all unconnected, like telephone poles without the lines. Over time, and during the first three years of life, between 700 and 1,000 new connections are made every second. As the neurons become connected, they pave the way for increased brain function – from memory and emotion to motor skills and language.
The 30 million word gap
Because so much of this activity happens in the first three years of life, it’s fair to say that every single sound, sight, and sensation that we are exposed to as young babies and children will effectively lay the foundation for our future cognitive abilities. To support this theory, Suskind quotes a rigorous six-year-study published in 1995 by social scientists Betty Hart and Todd Risley, called "The Early Catastrophe, The 30 Million Word Gap by Age Three." The study highlighted that socioeconomic status isn't in itself the deciding factor when it comes to a child’s academic success – the child’s early language environment is. The study proved that in an hour, children with a high socioeconomic status heard two thousand words on average, compared to the mere 600 words heard by their peers lower on the socioeconomic scale. Over time, this amounted to a 30-million-word gap in the number of words that different children heard by age three. Essentially, children who grow up in homes with lots of talking, regardless of their parents' economic status or level of education, tend to do better later in life. So if talking to our children can literally "shape their brains" and give them a greater start in life, how can we help?
1 | Read and tell stories
According to Suskind, reading and telling stories to our children fosters their inclination towards imagination and, eventually, speech. A great idea to set our children up for success (and a good skill to have by the time they start school) is to talk to them about what is going on in the book, and how it affects the characters – in an age-appropriate way, of course. No more skipping that bedtime story from now on.
2 | Create a growth mindset
Suskind claims that criticism can be upsetting for children, causing them to retreat into their shells. Excessive praise on the other hand can make them dependent on the opinions of others for motivation. So it’s important that we help our children become confident from an early age – we should encourage them to believe in their own abilities and know that every goal is approachable and achievable. Teaching our children that no matter what challenge they face, they'll be able to overcome it through perseverance, grit, and tenacity helps them build a growth mindset. How do we do this exactly? By using positive and supportive words (affirmative feedback), we prompt the children to interact through language, and help them develop their vocabulary and social skills.
3 | Tune in
"Tuning in" refers to the practice of paying attention to where your child’s attention is. So if your child is building a tower, the best thing to do in that moment is to engage in a conversation about what they’re doing, rather than trying to move the focus to another activity. Makes sense, right? Because their attention doesn’t switch focus, and you’re talking about something they’re interested in, the learning is seamless and more effective.
4 | Talk more
Never pass on an opportunity to talk to your children. Every mundane activity can help with brain development. Describe what’s happening as you go about your day – give your children new words, enhance their vocabulary, and strengthen the links between sounds and the objects they correspond to. Then take it to the next level by talking about memories or telling them an imaginary story that is related to what you’re doing or talking about. This enriches their "decontextualized language."
5 | Take turns
As you would in a conversation with another adult, don’t forget to respond to your children’s gestures, sounds, and words. This "parental responsiveness" has been linked to cognitive development, social-emotional development, and physical health. Also, don’t forget to give them enough time to think of a word for themselves, rather than saying it for them. Isn’t it great to know that promoting language (and brain) development in our children is something that each and every one of us has within our power to achieve? It’s empowering to know that we can all help our children be all they can be. Do you have any more tips to share? Leave tips or suggestions in the comments section below.