Talkative Parents a Key Factor in Children’s Language Development

A major new study finds that socioeconomic status and gender don't play roles in language development, but adult talk does

Two parents and two young children sit together on a sofa, laughing about what they are seeing on a digital tablet.

(Adobe Stock)

The amount of adult talk that children hear might be a significant factor in their own development of language skills, according to a major new study.

Published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study involved the analysis of more than 40,000 hours of child-centered audio as families went about their day, capturing the heard and produced speech of 1,001 children, ages 2-48 months, from 12 countries, six continents, and contexts ranging from cities to farms.

“It’s noteworthy because it’s one of the first studies to include such a large sample size from different parts of the world who speak different languages,” says Nairán Ramírez-Esparza, an associate professor and director of social psychology in UConn’s psychological sciences department, one of the researchers who worked on the study, which was led by Harvard University’s Elika Bergelson.

Each of the children wore a small recorder, called a LENA, tucked into the pocket of a child-sized T-shirt that collected information about when adults were talking to the infants and children. The sophisticated device excluded periods of silence and background noise like from a television, explains Ramírez-Esparza.

Contrary to their expectations, the researchers found that socioeconomic status, gender, and multilingualism did not predict children’s speech production. But, as expected, child speech production was predicted by age and whether a child had a language-relevant clinical risk or diagnosis. The amount of adult speech a child heard also emerged as a significant additional factor: for every 100 adult vocalizations per hour, the researchers found, children produced 27 additional vocalizations of their own.

In other words, the more an adult talks to a child, the more a child responds.

Ramírez-Esparza’s own research looks at bilingual families and has found the more parents speak Spanish, the more children do; the same is true for English. Consequently, vocabulary is enhanced in whichever language is most often spoken.

She says it’s interesting that this new study takes her research a step further and concludes definitively that language skills are better with adult conversation no matter the language.

Bilingual parents should not be worried about stunting their children’s language acquisition if they’re switching between two languages, she stresses.

“The takeaway from this research, especially for new parents, is that it doesn’t matter what kind of speech or language you use when talking to your infants,” Ramírez-Esparza says. “It doesn’t matter the kind of stories or level of detail. You can talk about anything. Just talking to them is going to be useful in getting them to start talking.”