Study shows it's good to be a chatterbox

We all talk about quality when it comes to serving our children -- quality education, quality health care, the list goes on -- but when it comes to language development, could it really be more about the quantity rather than the quality of the words you speak?

Maybe. A seminal study conducted in Kansas published in 1995 and featured recently on NPR sparked insight that the number of words spoken to a child directly contributes to his or her ability to expand their vocabulary.

In particular, it's how much we speak to children before their 4th birthday that really makes a difference.

Initially, the focus of the study was to expand the vocabulary of children who came from poor housing projects so that they heard as many words as a child of a University of Kansas professor. But when the children failed to show improvement, it became clear that they weren't being reached early enough.

The study followed 40 families in the first three years of a child's life, recording and literally counting the words spoken to kids. It was discovered that parents in higher income families speak three times as many words to their children compared with parents in low-income families (2,100 vs. 600). By age 4, attempts to expand a child's vocabulary were much less effective.

When we talk about achievement gaps between children in low- and high-income families, consider this: By age 4, a child from a low-income family has heard only 13 million words, while a child from a higher income families has heard 48 million words. Kids from poor neighborhoods and housing projects are playing catch-up from day one.

But what about the quality of words spoken to a child? Researchers have suggested programs to teach low-income parents how to talk to their babies, hoping that a change in micro interactions would result in macro differences. Still, they warn that this kind of intervention is not sufficient to close the achievement gap. "Words are a fact, but must be followed by good stimulation and positive parenting."

Another study looked at how mothers answered their child's simple question, "What is that?" when pointing to an eggplant. One mother told her child to hush and ignored the question. The second mother told her child, "That's an eggplant, but we don't eat it." The third mother not only answered the question, but turned it into an activity -- "That's an eggplant. It's one of the few purple vegetables... Oh, look, it's about two pounds and it costs $1.99 a pound. Let's round it to $2. That would cost just about $4. That's a bit pricey, but you like veal Parmesan, and eggplant Parmesan is delicious too. You'll love it. Let's buy one, take it home, cut it open. We'll make a dish together." That's about 50 words compared with zero. 

I think of my own three-year-old niece who hears three languages daily (English, Bengali and Urdu), mixed in with a bit of Spanish (thanks to Dora) and Mandarin (thanks to Kai-Lan). On her last visit to the doctor, she and her parents had to fill out a 36-month comprehensive questionnaire. One of the questions showed a picture of half a face, asking her to identify it. Correct answers included person, mother or father. Her answer? "That looks like a monster! Where is the rest of their face and body?" Needless to say, she passed the test and her parents left the doctor's office happy. She left with a sticker :)