Health Matters

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Our babies are precious to us. We pile them with presents. We worry about all the harmful chemicals that the world has manufactured. We fill them with finest foods. But we’ve forgotten the most important ingredient. And it’s all round us, free and just waiting to be used: words. Meet the newest trend: ‘language nutrition’.

And words are going out of business. We used to live in big, extended families in big, extended streets or villages. We used to – listen to this, kids! – talk to each other round the fire, over the washing or at the peat bank. We didn’t used to have – our grannies tell us – radios, tellies, videos, iPads or even smart phones. I remember thirty years ago sitting in Australia’s Western Desert with a bunch of Pintupi Aboriginal guys, trying to convince them that the TV was only invented recently and that when I was born our family hadn’t had one!

There are now huge – and I mean really huge – differences in the amount of language we speak to our kids. Twenty years ago researchers in America followed 42 families with young children every month from the age of 7 months to 3 years. Every month the scientists sat in a corner of the room and recorded all the conversations for an hour. The results amazed everybody. After 3 years, up to 98% of the words used by the children had been used by their parents during that period. But as well as that, the kids were mimicking the way and the amount their parents talked. Some families talked much more than others. The least-talking households used 616 words an hour, while the most-talking children were hearing 2,153 words an hour. That meant that the children in the most-talking families had heard 30 million more words than those in the least-talking houses by the age of four.

Not only that, but some families ‘scolded’ their children much more than others. Some parents gave out two discouragements for every encouragement – by the age of four they were on the receiving end of 125,000 more words of discouragement than encouragement; others praised six times more than they scolded. All the families were equally loving and the kids as well-looked after as each other.

And what about ‘screen language’? Is the old parental standby of CBBC, DVD and now the kid’s own iPad just as good? Probably not. Another study from America looked at 9-month-old babies from Englishspeaking families, who were talked to in Mandarin Chinese for half an hour, three times a week for a month. At the end of this they tested the babies to see if they could tell the difference between two sounds common in Chinese – ‘chee’ and ‘shee’. The babies could do this, as well as babies brought up in Taiwan. But babies given exactly the same exposure to Mandarin on a TV or a radio hadn’t learned anything. You need the words, but you also have to have a human being in front of you.

Babies learn more if you talk to them about what’s interesting them at the time. In other words, if they’re looking at a bright red car, talk about that, not a book about hippopotamuses you’ve just got from the library. And two languages are even better. Children exposed to two languages concentrated better, and were better at solving problems, than English-only kids.

So how should we talk to babies and young children – apart from ‘a lot’? Well, you might think that being sophisticated is better. But speaking in baby talk, or what the experts call ‘child directed speech’, is the best. Sometimes called ‘parentese’, this involves a higher pitched voice, a sing-song style, stretching the words out (“Whoooose a prettyy bayyybeeee. Yes, yoooo are!”), and exaggerated facial expressions. Studies show that babies like it and they remember more from the ‘conversation’. Importantly, adults who speak baby talk actually like babies more, and infants are good at working this out – and smile at them more. They’ve got us wrapped around their tiny fingers! A baby’s first 1,000 days are the most important; words are as important to the growing brain as food is to the growing body. Scans show that babies exposed to more talking have physically bigger language centres in their brains.

As one expert said, “Brains aren’t born, they’re made.” Words are free. Fill the air with them!

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