How many words will children hear in their lifetime? In this article, we’ll discuss how important the number of words your child hears is to their development and how parents can foster language development.
Child development experts say that the number of words matters. Previous studies have pointed out the importance of talking to your children early on and exposing their developing brains to a variety of words. Research has pointed the finger by focusing on knowledge and parental skill. But a new study suggests hardship and stressful situations affect how much caregivers talk to kids.
In a new study in Developmental Science, researchers asked caregivers with 3-year-olds to reflect on times of scarcity. Some imagined scenarios such as a house fire requiring expensive repairs or a dramatic stock market crash; others were prompted to think about non-financial problems such as running out of fruit. After researchers observed the parents as they interacted with their kids, they saw that those who had been asked the questions about financial scarcity talked significantly less to their children and used fewer word types.
In another experiment, the researchers put devices on children that can count the words they say and hear for a month. They found that around the end of the month — prime time for economic insecurity because monthly budgets have run out — parents talked less to their children. This makes sense because, in times of high stress, people tend to focus on the problem at hand, such as finding the money to pay bills, and less on other areas of their lives, such as reading to their kids.
This concept challenges the notion that people who speak fewer words to their children are bad or uneducated parents. Rather, the research suggests that systemic challenges like poverty can play a role in how much parents talk to their kids and that reducing income inequality could boost kids’ chances at success in the future.
This research doesn’t mean that children whose parents are struggling financially are doomed to have smaller vocabularies. Rather it highlights the importance of making sure parents have the resources they need to parent.
If you are worried about putting food on the table tonight, scraping together money for that medical bill, or figuring out where to enroll your child in school now that you have been evicted from your neighborhood, you may be less likely to narrate the color of the sky to your child as you ride together on the bus.
One-way parents can continue to assist their child’s learning and development is by identifying times when they aren’t able to do things such as read or speak to their children – whether that be at the end of the month or when work gets busy. After identifying these situations, parents can prepare ahead of time by having an older sibling, family member, or friend around to spend time with their young child, doing activities to promote language development.
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 talking 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.
University of California – Berkeley. (2021, July 19). When money’s tight, parents talk less to kids; could this explain the word gap? Tackling income inequality could boost low-income children’s vocabulary, new study suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 2, 2021 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/07/210719153506.htm
Ellwood-Lowe, M. E., Foushee, R., & Srinivasan, M. (2021). What causes the word gap? Financial concerns may systematically suppress child-directed speech. Developmental Science, 00, 1- 16. https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.13151
Hart, B. & T.R. Risley. “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3,” American Educator (2003, Spring). 4-9. https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/TheEarlyCatastrophe.pdf
Hart, B. & T. Risley. Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing, 1995).