Why conversation makes babies smarter

Last Updated November 2019

Early language is one of the strongest predictors of future academics and intelligence. But not all children are provided the same head start in language development. As discovered in a landmark study in 1995 by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, the word gap is a tremendous problem in America, and a lot of parents are not even aware that it exists.

  • The word gap

“Word gap” is the term for the words that babies do not hear throughout their first few years. Babies derive most of their vocabulary from the vocabulary of their parents or caregivers. Studies show that babies are listening and taking in information from the world before they are even born. Some parents are not aware of just how astute young babies are. Other parents may be dealing with extreme poverty or toxic stress and talking to their baby simply moves down on the list of priorities.

Researchers have found that during the first three years of life, a child of lower economic status hears roughly 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers. Because 85% of a child’s brain is developed by age three, not hearing words spoken to them by their parents during this critical developmental period puts these children at a huge disadvantage.

  • Quality vs. quantity

Babies are not only learning language and vocabulary at this young age but they’re also learning communication skills. A growing body of evidence is telling us that the quality of language is even more important than the quantity of language that a child hears.

Some studies suggest that babies understand the pause and flow of a conversation as early as three weeks. Pay close attention to your baby when you’re having a conversation with someone. Does she look from you to the other person when you pause, anticipating the other person to talk next? When you talk to your baby, do you ask questions, then pause for her to respond? If she is not verbalizing yet, even maintaining eye contact with you during these pauses indicates that she is engaged.

We know that the amount of words spoken to the baby by the parent is a strong predictor of future literacy and academic skills, but recent studies from MIT are showing that this back-and-forth conversation is even more important. Back-and-forth conversation between a baby and parent is showing more activity in the part of the brain that interprets language. This is called Broca's area and it is found in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

"It’s almost magical how parental conversation appears to influence the biological growth of the brain,” says John Gabrieli, the Grover M. Hermann Professor in Health Sciences and Technology, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences, a member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, and the senior author of the most recent study.

  • Communication skills

Research from Harvard shows that interactive conversation gives children an opportunity to practice their communication and language skills, which include listening, understanding, and responding in an appropriate way.

Conversation represents more than just language; it represents engagement between the child and the caregiver. When you talk to your baby, try to get in the habit of pausing after you ask a question so he can respond. Eventually his babble will fill in the gaps as he learns how to have a conversation. Try to maintain eye contact with him as much as possible. Think of it as "turn taking" when you are talking to him.

Conversation looks different at every age. With newborns, it may just be talking and asking questions, then pausing and making eye contact. With six-month-olds, there might be an exchange of babbles and coos, and with toddlers, it might include expanding on their phrases and asking "wh" questions, then answering their "wh" questions as they get a little bit older.

  • People, not technology

It is important to note that research shows us that this back-and-forth communication can’t be achieved with TV or technology. In order for the child to reap the benefits of the conversation, it has to be face to face with another human being. Technology can actually get in the way of new learning. A recent study published in Developmental Psychology found that when a teaching period between a parent and child was interrupted by a cell phone call, the new learning opportunity was lost.

  • Consistency counts

Talk to your child all day long! Narrate what you’re doing and ask questions along the way. Ask her what she thinks about what she sees, pause, and then tell her your thoughts. Repeat this over and over. Encourage other people who are involved in the care of your baby to do the same. Through these conversations you are introducing new words, increasing vocabulary and future learning potential, bonding with your child, and laying the groundwork for your child’s conversation skills.

Written by:
  • Aimee