The worth of 30 million words
If words we learned as children determined a big portion of who we become as adults, how many words would we need to have heard by the time we are 3?
If you were to go by studies, a 1995 study put it at 30 million words. The researchers found this out by placing recorders on children from various economic backgrounds for an hour every month from the time they were born until they were 3. Then they parsed all those recordings and came up with that conclusion. The researchers found that word-wise, what separates children who belong to different socio-economic backgrounds is 30 million words. They found that children from poorer families heard 30 million less words than their richer counterparts by the time they reached the 3rd year of their lives. This is among the many important reasons why words matter.
Words matter because it is a reflection of how we engage the people around us and the world – the way we nuance and acknowledge that reality is not just one dimension. Words here do not refer to only common written or spoken vocabulary. Whether in braille, or sign, as language or dialect, words engage the same brain regions that processes language. Nature starts weaving the language network in our brains even while we are still in the womb.
Subsequent studies like this one looked into other aspects of children’s language processing, including the rate at which this gap grows before kids turn 3. They found that the eye movement of kids (object recognition is linked to language) aged 18 and 24 months from more affluent families are able to identify objects more than those from lower socio-economic classes. In terms of vocabulary, they found that the differences are already dramatic at 18 months old and by the time they are two, this gap has already significantly grown. This is also because it is at these ages when our brain develops at a rapid rate, wiring us in ways that will mostly stay with us well into adulthood.
There is no doubt that being nourished with words in childhood is linked with success in school, overall literacy, and health, which in turn hold sway over success in adult life. This has been studied and confirmed over and over again through the years that scientists came up with the term "language nutrition" to refer to this non-caloric nourishment.
But surely, it is not just the mere existence of words, right? Otherwise, we can just prop up our children in front of any screen with talking heads or fit them with headphones to listen to endless talk. The words here presuppose that adults talk to children and that their children are building up their language armory in the process. When parents talk to their children in an engaging way, as opposed to talking down to them, children also learn words much faster.
In a most recent study involving kids 4 to 6 years old, it is not just the number or quality of words or the way they are spoken to the child – it is also the number of conversations that the child engages in! Not only did the verbal skill scores of kids who had more conversations trump those who had less conversations – the language network of the brain, referred to as Broca’s brain, also showed more activation. This is the first time we have seen what happens to children in conversation and the effect it has on them in terms of verbal skills. And what is more important is that it did not matter whether they were from rich or poor families, it was the number of conversations that mattered.
“Conversation” in the study meant a back-and-forth between adult and child. It is not just reading to children or having them read books or listen to lectures and surrounding them with words that way. It is when you direct words them in context and they respond to it and you both have a hand in the direction of the conversation. These are mostly family and school conversations since this involves children so this emphasizes even more the role of the adults in the family home, as well as the teachers and other adults in schools.
Rich or poor, it matters that adults talk to children. This is also why grandparents and extended families matter because they could extend and enrich conversations with the children in the family. One of my most favorite kids, "N," age (almost) two spends her day time alternating between her maternal and paternal grandparents. One time she dropped a piece of paper and she exclaimed, “Ay, senior ko!” referring to senior cards that her grandparents always carry with them. Imagine the conversations she has all day with them. I was like that when I was a child. I even snooped on adult conversations trying to find out what it was about adults that made them so powerful.
In countries like ours, the poor who mostly go to public schools are constrained to have conversations with their teachers since there are so many students in a class. This is where there may be a "bottleneck." My experience with children is that they all do talk at the same time and if you are the only adult around, you have to be very skilled in the art of making sure each one gets his or her turn. But how do you do this with at least 50 children at a time?
Have a conversation with children and help build their world of words. After all, language is the soul of life. – Rappler.com