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Author Q&A Series: Renate Zangl on ‘Raising a Talker’ Part 2

With ever-increasing attention on the word gap and a growing number of technologies that promise to give your baby a head start, it can be hard to sort through the information to know what truly is best for your baby. We caught up with developmental psycholinguist and author of Raising a Talker Renate Zangl to find out the best ways to set your child on the path to language learning.

Do baby videos and TV programs help a child’s language development?

No, they don’t. Research studies have shown that baby DVDs actually hinder language development rather than fostering it. Claims on such videos that they foster the development of toddlers’ speech and language are misleading and simply not true.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV or screen time for children under two years old. Unfortunately, reality is different: By around age two, almost 90 percent of toddlers in the U.S. spend two to three hours in front of a screen each day.

Babies learn fewer words when watching videos than they do when interacting with real live people. And fewer words early on is a big deal, because a smaller vocabulary sets toddlers up for a slower learning curve—learning builds on itself. Science is crystal clear: Infants and toddlers learn language best in interactions with real people. Parents should know that they have everything they need to provide their children with the best learning opportunities, as long as they lovingly play and engage.

How have new technologies helped us learn about children’s, even babies’, language-learning potential?

New technologies using sophisticated video and audio equipment that measure brain activity and eye tracking have given us important insights into how language is processed. You can literally peek into the child’s brain and eyes to learn more about how he understands speech and what kinds of information he uses and when he uses it. Thanks to these new technologies, we now know a lot more about the very important period before children say their first words. We get insights into what children recognize and understand during the learning process. These technologies are important because they help to establish and define what normal development is. The hope is that the technologies will help early on to identify young children who are at potential risk for later language delay or disruption. And earlier interventions are key to making up lost ground and helping children to flourish.

What are some insights from science for parents who are interested in giving their children a head start?

There are four things every parent should know:

  • They can shape and support their children in building strong communication and language skills. They are not bystanders but active partners in this amazing journey.
  • Good language input and communication efforts early on are not wasted. They give young children meaningful advantages, now and into the school years. Why? Because all learning is sequential. Good input provides more opportunities to learn, which means that children will likely know more and can then learn more—learning builds on itself.  
  • Language learning has already started when the baby is born, and much is learned long before the baby speaks her first recognizable word. To provide the best learning conditions, talking and engaging with children should start from the earliest moments. Science tells us that parents tend to stick with their patterns of engagement and talk: Those who engage more right away do so throughout the infant and toddler years. Those who engage less tend to stay taciturn and less engaged, a pattern that may hinder development because it provides fewer learning opportunities for the child.
  • Children learn best from one-on-one interactions in which parents play, read, sing, engage, and consistently respond to their children. It’s not just about talking a lot; it’s also about listening and responding.

For more tips and information on boosting language learning, check out part one of our interview with Renate. Her book Raising a Talkerwas recently reviewed on the blog Mommy University. Read the full review here

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