Babies aren’t born smart; they’re made smart when parents talk to them. That’s the message of Thirty Million Words by Dana Suskind. The main premise of the book is that each child is born with great potential, but to reach his or her fullest potential, a child has to hear lots of words. Reaching our fullest potential is strongly determined by what happens to us when our brains are being developed, from birth through about three years of age . Hearing lots of words during that time promotes brain development and the early connections that are needed for children to prosper. So to nourish your child’s brain and to help him reach his fullest potential, you simply need to talk, talk, talk.
The main premise is based on the seminal work of Betty Hart and and Todd Risley and, more specifically, their study published in 1995 titled “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children”. The study was designed to ascertain the most important factors to the building of vocabulary in children at age 3, because vocabulary usage at that age was shown to predict language skills and reading compression at older ages . The study found the following:
In their first four years, “an average child in a professional family would have accumulated experience with almost 45 million words, an average child in a working-class family would have accumulated experience with 26 million words, and an average child in a welfare family would have accumulated experience with 13 million words” 
In other words, a sort of “achievement gap” (that much-talked-about disparity of educational measures between the performance of groups of students, especially groups defined by socioeconomic status (SES), race/ethnicity and gender, as defined by Wikipedia) was present in children as young as four years old, and that gap was based on the number of words heard in the home.
This study is a seminal one in the field of literacy and early childhood education because its results show that neither socioeconomic status, nor race, nor gender, nor birth order was the key component in a child’s ability to learn. The essential factor that determined the future learning trajectory of a child was the early language environment: how much and how a parent talked to the child. Children in homes in which there was a lot of parent talk, no matter the educational or economic status of that home, did better .
And these differences persisted. When the children were reexamined six years later, Hart and Risley found that the amount of talk the children had been exposed to through age three also predicted their language skills and school test scores at ages nine and ten . So the results were lasting and the presence (or absence) of a word-rich environment was highly determinant of future success.
What’s the science behind this difference?
The language environment in which a child is raised affects the brain’s language processing speed. A child’s language processing speed is the speed with which he or she can attach meaning to the information being heard. The processing speed is critical to learning. It is, in fact, of double importance, because if you have to work hard at recognizing a word, you also miss recognizing the word following it, making learning exceedingly difficult . The more words a child knows, the easier it is for him or her to understand what is being said to them, and the faster they can learn a new concept.
Research done by Anne Fernald demonstrates that a split-second delay in grasping the meaning of a familiar word in a sentence made it much more difficult for a child to figure out the next one . The same research found that children raised in a word-rich environment, even when in lower-income homes, had larger vocabularies and faster language processing speeds than those who had heard less talk at two-years of age. So the more words a child hears while growing up, the faster it is for them to process and associate meaning to the words they are hearing.
These differences in processing speed persisted. Fernald’s research has shown that speed of spoken language understanding and vocabulary size in 2-year-olds predicted cognitive and language skills in later childhood .
Neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to form new neural connections, is also affected by a word-rich environment. Suskind states that from birth through about three years of age, each second represents the creation, by the brain, of 700 to 1,000 additional neuronal connections . So neural connections are being made at an amazing rate. At the same time, a process of synaptic pruning is taking place, which is the weeding out of those neural connections that are weaker or less used . So it is during this time of creating new connections and pruning away obsolete connections that the potential for skill building and verbal learning is extraordinary , and the author believes that it’s because of this dynamism that the word-rich environment is so influential.
Lastly, being raised in a word-rich environment helps children develop emotionally. When a child is in a language-rich environment, the increased language skills of the child result in an increased ability to self-regulate .
Are there specific types of words that need to be used?
It’s simple: the more words, the better. Could you tweak your language to use more descriptive words or more encouraging speech? Sure. But the most important thing is that you talk a lot and then talk some more. We don’t have to get parents to talk different to their children. We just have to help them talk more and the rest will take care of itself .
And it’s important to remember that we’re talking about conversing with your child, not giving directions. We’re not talking about “business talk”, but extra talk. It’s the chit-chat talk that really matters. The description of what you’re doing, or the explanation of what they’re looking at our holding.
There are some things to keep in mind, though.
When it comes to giving directions, focus on affirmative directives instead of prohibitions. Hart and Risley’s research found that children in poorer families heard more than double the amount of negative remarks per hour than children from professional families , and the author believes that these negative remarks reinforce to a “belief gap” in children of poverty, or a gap in a child’s inherent belief that they are capable.
Try to include numbers, shapes, and other mathematical concepts in your chit-chat. Babies who are talked to about numbers develop a greater number sense. A study by Levine et al. found that parental cumulative talk to children about numbers during the early childhood years positively related to children’s later cardinal number knowledge, over and above parental talk in general . So the more you talk about numbers, the more numerical concepts the child understands.
Similarly, another study by Levine demonstrated that children who have been exposed to a lot of spatial language input are far more likely to produce spatial language themselves and are more likely to perform better on spatial problem solving tasks at 54 months of age .
What does this mean? Talk about numbers and the size and shape of objects. Count with your children. Compare one object to another using size or shape comparisons. Again, just talk, talk and then talk some more.
Can we use recorded words or is the interaction important?
Interaction is vital. A baby’s brain learns in an environment of social responsiveness and social interaction . This assertion is based on studies by Dr. Patricia Kuhl, who found that in children between the ages of 9-10 months, learning is influenced by the presence of a live person. A live human being generates interpersonal social cues that attract infant attention and motivate learning. There is evidence that communicative learning in other species, such as songbirds, is enhanced by social contact . So books-on-tape and movies can’t replace your voice. Your child needs you to talk with him or her directly.
What about children in bilingual households?
The mandate of talking holds true, and each parent should talk in their native tongue. Research shows that no matter the education level of the parents, nor how proficient they are in English acquired as an adult, it is always better when parents speak to their children in their native tongues . Why? Because people are best able to express vocabulary, syntax, nuance and overall quality of a language when it is their native language. And language is about the soft skills, not just the sounds.
What are best-practices for creating a word-rich environment?
To create a rich language environment, the author suggests the Three Ts: Tune In, Talk More, and Take Turns.
Tuning In means relating to your baby and starting a conversation about what he or she is focused on. Whether that is a book or an empty box. Focus in on what they’re looking at and talk to them about it. Tuning in also means turning off your phone, IPad and television. Truly engaging with your child in a meaningful way and talking to them in a loving and deliberate way.
Talking More is pretty self-explanatory. Talk a lot in a loving way using diverse and descriptive vocabulary. Talk with your child, not to or at your child. Narrate what you’re doing or what he’s seeing.
Taking Turns means engaging your child in a conversation. Again, talking with your child. And this relies on both tuning in and talking more.
How can we possibly do this on top of everything else we’re doing?
I know, this all sounds pretty daunting. We’re busy already, especially those of us with more than one child. How can we possibly fit in time to talk more with our baby? We all do our best with our children and extra true for you or you wouldn’t be reading this post. So just reading this will probably change how you approach talking to your children. With that in mind, here are three things that you can do to facilitate creating a word-rich environment for your child.
1. Talk, talk and talk more to your children. Use descriptive words. Keep a positive tone. Include numbers and spatial information. Talk with them more even when you’re tired of talking, but do so with the knowledge that your words are nourishing their brains.
2. Read books to/with your child. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all parents read to their children from infancy through at least the first year of school . And research shows the benefit of reading to children in utero . So definitely read to your child. In fact, reading may be better than talking alone. Why? Because reading may be a better way to expand the vocabulary of a child. Books and printed materials have more rare words (words not in the most common 10,000 used) than words in normal conversations . So reading to children is a great way to expand on your child’s vocabulary and provide a word-rich environment.
As an added benefit, reading to your child also increases their print awareness, helping them make the connection between the lines on the page and spoken language.
Should you read something special to newborns or babies? Nope, you can read almost anything you want. Because comprehension is not the goal when reading to a newborn, it is not necessary to choose a children’s book for the activity. This may be a good time, in fact, to catch up on the news or finally crack open that bestseller that’s been sitting on your nightstand for the last six months .
3. Turn It Off. Perhaps the easiest thing we can do is turning off our electronics and those of our children. Turn off your gadgets and instead engage fully with your children. Will this require more of your time and attention? Absolutely. Will you be able to multi-task as easily as you can when they’re playing with your phone or watching a movie on the computer? Probably not. But as the author states, a child who is able to learn, who is stable, who can relate to a parent warmly and receptively, goes a long way to making life easier . So it may be harder today, but it will pay off tomorrow.
- Suskind, D. (2015). Thirty Million Words: Buildling a child’s brain. New York, NY: Dutton.
- The Early Catastrophe. The 30 Million Word Gap. Hart, Betty; Risley, Todd R. American Educator, v27 n1 p4-9 Spr 2003.
- SES differences in language processing skill and vocabulary are evident at 18 months. Fernald A, Marchman VA, Weisleder A. Dev Sci. 2013 Mar;16(2):234-48.
- Speed of word recognition and vocabulary knowledge in infancy predict cognitive and language outcomes in later childhood. Marchman VA, Fernald A. Dev Sci. 2008 May;11(3):F9-16.
- What counts in the development of young children's number knowledge? Levine SC, Suriyakham LW, Rowe ML, Huttenlocher J, Gunderson EA. Dev Psychol. 2010 Sep;46(5):1309-19.
- Children's spatial thinking: does talk about the spatial world matter? Pruden SM, Levine SC, Huttenlocher J. Dev Sci. 2011 Nov;14(6):1417-30.
- Foreign-language experience in infancy: effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Kuhl PK, Tsao FM, Liu HM. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2003 Jul 22;100(15):9096-101.
- Expressive Vocabulary Development in Children from Bilingual and Monolingual Homes: A Longitudinal Study from Two to Four Years. Hoff E, Rumiche R, Burridge A, Ribot KM, Welsh SN. Early Child Res Q. 2014 Oct 1;29(4):433-444.
- Literacy promotion: an essential component of primary care pediatric practice. Council on Early Childhood, High PC, Klass P. Pediatrics. 2014 Aug;134(2):404-9.
- Prenatal Maternal Speech Influences Newborns’ Perception of Speech Sound. DeCasper AJ and Spence MJ. Infant Behavior and Development 9, 133-150 (1986).
- Vocabulary comes from Reading. Stephen Krashen March, 2012