• Robb G. Best

Seen and Heard: Growing Language Skills in Kids

For parents of young children hoping to boost their offspring’s language skills, the solution might be simpler than you think: talk to them. And then, crucially, let them respond to you. Rinse and repeat—and repeat, and repeat, as much as you can.

In a recent article from the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers studied 40 healthy young children (27 male, 13 female) between the ages of 4 and 6 across a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Of course, 40 kids is not a large enough sample size to draw any definitive conclusions, but the study does provide some interesting possibilities.

The scientists found that early language exposure is a pretty good predictor of white matter connectivity between two key language-related parts of the brain, known as Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area. (Broca’s area handles the movements necessary to produce speech, while Wernicke’s area aids in understanding speech, and selecting accurate words to verbalize thoughts.)

However, not just any language exposure does the trick: the vital part seems to be having a dialogue with your kindergartener, a conversational give-and-take. That’s what builds the good stuff, the strong, coherent white matter suggesting greater language skills.

And again, these results held true regardless of socioeconomic status. This is great news for educators looking to close that well-known “word gap,” made famous by a study which found that children growing up in poverty hear thirty million fewer words than rich kids by age 3. However, says Anya Kamenetz of NPR.org, here’s some even better news: the “thirty million words” study appears to be largely bogus.

Kamenetz notes that this little factoid is based on a single study conducted 40 years ago, in just 42 families, and that some, like vocabulary acquisition expert Paul Nation, object to the way in which the data was collected. These 42 families invited researchers into their homes, Nation argues, and the presence of an unknown scientist might have brought on self-consciousness, affecting parental behavior; while working-class adults might have been intimidated into near-silence, the more affluent parents could have wound up showing off their education by using a wider variety of words than usual.

Using more advanced, less obtrusive methods, scientists performed a tweaked replication of the original experiment with a much larger sample size—329 families this time—and found the word gap to be not 30 million words by age 3, but 4 million words by age 4. Clearly, there is still a long way to go if we want to eliminate the gap. But thanks to that recent brain matter study, we may have a place to start.

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