Talk to Your Baby

by Gary E. Dudley, Ph.D.

Early in my career I was presented with a nearly four years old boy with speech delay. He had occasional one word intelligible speech, but no phrases and certainly not the fluent speech that characterizes the typical four year old. Expressive language was about the level of a child 20-24 months. Assessment of recognition vocabulary was a little better but still far behind average for the age. Interview with parents was surprising. Dad worked as a maintenance man at a chicken rendering plant, mom stayed home with their only child. As I inquired about the rourtine of a typical day, mom reported that she mostly reads and listens to music until dad gets home, and the child is put to bed  soon thereafter. I asked if they read to the child. No, why would they do that “he don’t understand nothing.” I asked if they speak to the child. “You don’t get it doc, he don’t talk.”

Obviously, this was an extreme example, but it underscored for me the importance of hearing language at an early age to promote language development. Developmental psychologists have long understood the relationship of modeling and imitation in speech development, but what about mere exposure to language? Are there any data. As of 2012, we have a clear appreciation of the importance of hearing language at an early age. But, it wasn’t always so.
One of the early pioneers in researching the important of hearing language was Betty Hart. In the early 1960s, she began to help economically disadvantaged children  overcome speech and vocabulary deficits. However, she later concluded that remedial efforts had begun too late in the child’s development and that these children were not able to simply catch up with their more fortunate peers.
Dr. Hart suspected that behavioral differences among economically disparate groups contributed to the observed deficits in language and vocabulary for children living in economically disadvantaged families. Over a period of nearly three years, she and her colleagues recorded every word that was spoken to the child (beginning when the child was 7 to 9 months of age) for one hour every month. According to a recent article in the New York Times, Dr. Hart’s research found that the average child in a welfare family was hearing, on average, less than half the number of words than a typical child in a working class family, and less than one-third the number of words of a child in a professional family. The Times article reports that “By age 4, the average child in a welfare family might have 13 million fewer words of cumulative experience than the average child in a working class family.” They also found differences in parental tone of voice, amount of positive feedback versus critical commentary and reported that the disparities in “speech and vocabulary acquisition persisted into the school years and affected overall educational development.”
The point here is, of course, that exposure to language beginning at a very early age has life long impact and some irreversible consequences for language development and usage. Across my 40 years career I have come to understand the most everybody, teachers, employers, friends and associates use the manner in which one speaks to make a judgment about their intelligence. And the judgment they make significantly impacts the manner in which they interact with them. Whether this means that a teacher spends more time and effort because “this child is bright” or a potential employer decides on a follow-up interview or a “hire” because “this applicant was very well spoken,” the ability to “speak well” has profound and life long implications. Teach you children to “speak well” by speaking well and often.