Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain

Why the most important—and astoundingly simple—thing you can do for your child’s future success in life is to talk to them.

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Karsen: From The Parent’s Club, I’m Karsen Kolnicki. This is your briefing.


Karsen: Today, we’re discussing Thirty Million Words: Building a Child's Brain. Written by Dr. Dana Suskind.

In this title, the Founder of the Thirty Million Words Initiative and Professor of Surgery and Pediatrics at the University of Chicago explains why the most important and simple thing that you can do for your child's future success in life is to talk to them.

Karsen: Vincent Phamvan on the key takeaways [pause] and what you need to know.


Karsen: Vincent, it seems pretty obvious, but why does the author say that having conversations with your children is the most important thing we can do for our children?

Vincent: When many of us think about our childhoods, we may remember parents, siblings, or grandparents reading stories to us. It turns out that reading and telling stories to our children fosters their imagination and speech. What may have not been clear though is how important this early language exposure is for the development of speech and academic success in the future.

Karsen: Many parents read books to their children because it's entertaining, but it sounds like the benefit lasts for years after the bedtime stories.

Vincent: One hundred percent true. The author says this has to do with how a child's brain is wired and that language is a big part in the formation of their neural network. As a parent, you can have a positive influence on this brain development, which helps pave the way for academic achievement.

Karsen: So how does brain development start at birth?

Vincent: Dr. Suskind says that when a baby is born, the brain is incomplete, unlike other bodily organs. Babies are born with as many as 100 billion neurons, which are unconnected. You can think of them like a bunch of telephone poles without the wires connecting them together.

When the neurons become connected, this paves the way for increased brain function. During the first three years, between 700 and 1,000 neuronal connections are made every second.

Karsen: But do they keep all of those connections after the first three years?

Vincent: No, while the complex wiring impacts every cerebral function from memory to emotion to motor skills and language, there is also rapid forging of connections. The network is gradually pared down to the essentials by removing extraneous pathways and those that are less used, through a process is called synaptic pruning.

Karsen: Is neuroplasticity, which is the ability to alter these neuronal pathways, ever as active as it is during these first three years?

Vincent: No, and that's a good thing because the brain development that occurs during these years lays the foundation for future intellectual capacity.

Karsen: What's an example of a foundational skill that develops in this period?

Vincent: The most notable one that the author discusses is the acquisition of language, which is the ability to interpret abstract strings of sounds to form meaning and that requires profound intelligence. According to research, a baby’s brain recognizes the specific sound patterns of her parents’ languages and strengthens these neural pathways, which will lay the foundation for speaking her native tongue.

Karsen: According to the author, is this why many people struggle to pick up new languages as they get older?

Vincent: Yes, during early development, the child's brain will get rid of less frequently used sounds and pathways which in turn reduces its ability to separate the sounds of a new language learned later in life. Kids that lack a decent understanding of language upon entering kindergarten will quickly fall behind their peers as their reduced ability to translate sounds into meaning takes its toll on their learning. As a result, they miss out on information, increasing their struggles.

Karsen: How does language impact other areas of learning such as math skills or abstract and spatial thinking?

Vincent: People have an innate sense of numbers and can estimate value but for advanced, more abstract mathematics, we rely on our ability to pair numbers with symbols and words, making math dependent on language. The abstractions between numbers and language lay the groundwork for children to develop spatial abilities and geometric skills such as mentally rotating objects and copying 3-D designs.

Karsen: What does the author say about the amount to which educational success depends on socioeconomic background?

Vincent: Dr. Suskind says that educational success depends less on socioeconomic background and more on how much parents talk to their children. According to a rigorous six-year study published in 1995 by social scientists Betty Hart and Todd Risley, a child's socioeconomic status isn't the deciding factor when it comes to their academic success. After recording and analyzing footage of families from different socioeconomic statuses, they found that in an hour, children from families with a high socioeconomic status heard 2,000 words on average, compared to the mere 600 words heard by their peers lower on the socioeconomic scale. Over time, amounting to a 30-million-word gap in the number of words that different kids hear by age three.

Karsen: At first glance, this study could seem to uncover a correlation between socioeconomic status and educational achievement but it actually shows that socioeconomic and race are not necessarily the primary determinants of a child's ability to learn, rather it's their early language environment?

Vincent: Yes, what the study uncovers is that children who grow up in homes with lots of talking, regardless of their parents' economic status or level of education, did better.

Karsen: The quantity of words spoken can’t be the only factor – doesn’t quality matter too?

Vincent: Yes. The greater variety of words a child is exposed to, the more they will learn. That very same study found that quality comes with quantity, meaning the more parents and caregivers spoke, the richer the child's language would become because of the greater variety of words they heard.

Karsen: In school environments especially, kids may be at different academic levels than their peers. As a parent, how can you help your child combat criticism without giving them excessive praise to the point where they are dependant on others' opinions for motivation?

Vincent: Dr. Suskind advises parents to start by helping them become confident that every goal is approachable and achievable. This is called a growth mindset and means you teach your child that no matter what challenges they face, they'll be able to overcome them through perseverance.

Karsen: What are the benefits of the growth mindset?

Vincent: Children who have one are not easily overwhelmed and believe they can reach their full potential through grit and tenacity. These benefits were documented in a 1998 study by Professor Carol Dweck, in which 128 fifth graders were given word puzzles and upon completion, the kids were either praised for being smart or for working hard. Then for a second task, the children got to choose between one that was similar to the first one or one that was harder. Of the kids who were praised for being smart, 67% chose the similar task while 97% of those praised for being hardworking chose the harder one. This showed that the kids in the hardworking group adopted a growth mindset and along came confidence that with determination, they were open to facing new challenges.

Karsen: In addition to this mindset helping kids challenge themselves, what does it look like for parents to adopt this mindset and positively influence their child's intelligence?

Vincent: Parents can do so by giving affirmative feedback, like saying positive, supportive words, or by prompting kids to interact through language, boost their vocabulary and develop their social skills. This is an essential step because parents with an affirmative view of their role are more likely to provide additional support to help their children realize their full potential.

Karsen: In terms of bridging the 30-million-word gap and helping your child learn more effectively, what can parents do at home?

Vincent: The strategy that the author recommends for increasing parent-child communication is by following the 3 Ts: Tune in, talk more, and take turns. Tune into whatever activity your child is doing rather than shifting the activity to something you think promotes more conversation such as storytime. If your child is playing with blocks, help them with the tower they're building and talk to them about colors, height, and what will happen if it gets too tall. This makes a better learning experience since they are already actively involved and doing something they like.

Karsen: What about the second T, talk more?

Vincent: Talking more is equally important and you should never pass up an opportunity to talk to your child. A good technique to doing so is baby talk, meaning speaking with a "cooing" pattern of intonation to attract your infant's attention and engage their brain to help them learn more easily. A recent Stanford University study found that kids who heard more child-directed speech between the ages of 11 and 14 months had double the vocabulary at age two than those with reduced exposure.

Karsen: What is a way parents can implement this?

Vincent: One way is by narrating to your child what is going on in daily activities.

Karsen: So by describing what is happening, you fill their ears with language and increases their vocabulary while also strengthening the links between sounds and the surrounding objects they correspond to.

Vincent: Exactly. In addition to narrating to provide your child with contextualized language, the contrast is providing them with decontextualized language which refers to memories or telling imaginary stories to expand the language to describe experiences your child isn't actively a part of.

Lastly, talking more entails expanding on speech every chance you get, in order to build vocabulary and generate flowing conversation. This is key because kids begin to speak using actions, partial words, and incomplete sentences. As a parent, you can help fill in the gaps while bulking up the conversation.

Karsen: The last of the 3 Ts is taking turns. How can parents use this to successfully encourage children to speak?

Vincent: Taking turns, is all about engaging your child in conversation by responding to each other’s gestures, sounds and words; this technique is designed to encourage your child to speak. An essential part of implementing turn-taking is by giving your child the extra few seconds needed to think of a word instead of saying it for them. Another strategy is to ask open-ended questions that begin with "how?" or "why?" because these are harder to answer in gestures, prompting them to speak.

Karsen: Is there a way parents can apply all 3 Ts?

Vincent: Yes, the author emphasizes the importance of reading to your kids and telling them stories. Storytime is a great way to put all 3 into practice. First, by paying attention to changes in your child’s interest or enthusiasm, you can shift focus to the things that jump out to them; in other words, you can get them to tune in.

Second, talking more in this context isn’t just about reading more books, it's about talking to your kid about what’s going on in the book and how it affects the characters. Giving such explanations will build meaning in your child’s mind.

Then, as a child ages, taking turns becomes more important. At this point, instead of explaining to your child what happened, you should encourage them to share their own ideas about the story and engage in discussion about them.

Karsen: It sounds like the key takeaway from this book is that [summary] Every child has the potential to succeed socially and academically. But to do this, they require assistance from their caregivers from a very early age. This means it’s important to create positive environments for early language learning and spread the word about this central aspect of parenting. By doing so, every parent has the power to shrink the achievement gap and help their kids be all they can be. This produces a ripple effect as parents are a key component in changing the attitudes of other parents.


Karsen: That’s it for your briefing. I’m Karsen Kolnicki.

Vincent: And I’m Vincent Phamvan.

Karsen: We’ll see you next time.


The founder and director of the Thirty Million Words Initiative, Professor Dana Suskind, explains why the most important—and astoundingly simple—thing you can do for your child’s future success in life is to talk to them.

What nurtures the brain to optimum intelligence and stability?

It is a secret hiding in plain sight: the most important thing we can do for our children is to have conversations with them. The way you talk with your growing child literally builds his or her brain. Parent talk can drastically improve school readiness and lifelong learning in everything from math to art. Indeed, parent-child talk is a fundamental, critical factor in building grit, self-control, leadership skills, and generosity. It is crucial to making the most in the life of the luck you have with your genes.

This landmark account of a new scientific perspective describes what works and what doesn’t (baby talk is fine; relentless correction isn’t). Discover how to create the best “language environments” for children by following the simple structure of the Three Ts: Tune In; Talk More; Take Turns. Dr. Suskind and her colleagues around the country have worked with thousands of families; now their insights and successful, measured approaches are available to all.

This is the first book to reveal how and why the first step in nurturing successful lives is talking to children in ways that build their brains. Your family—and our nation—need to know.

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