Talking to babies

When babies learn language, they learn more than language. According to a recent paper they also learn cognition. This news reminded me of something I had read months ago and I went back and found it. Here is the abstract of the paper, followed by the story illustrating the absence of good language learning.

Abstract of paper (Vouloumanos, Waxman; Listen up! Speech is for thinking during infancy; Trends in Cognitive Sciences Vol 18, issue 12 Dec 2020): “Infants’ exposure to human speech within the first year promotes more than speech processing and language acquisition: new developmental evidence suggests that listening to speech shapes infants’ fundamental cognitive and social capacities. Speech streamlines infants’ learning, promotes the formation of object categories, signals communicative partners, highlights information in social interactions, and offers insight into the minds of others. These results, which challenge the claim that for infants, speech offers no special cognitive advantages, suggest a new synthesis. Far earlier than researchers had imagined, an intimate and powerful connection between human speech and cognition guides infant development, advancing infants’ acquisition of fundamental psychological processes.

From Catherine Porter’s Column Aug 2014, Why Senegalese women have been afraid to talk to their babies - Fears of evil spirits have kept parents from talking to their babies, but that is changing thanks to a program that teaches about brain development. (here) : “10-year-old children in Senegal, deemed incomprehensibly dull by an international early literacy test six years ago. … The results were a blow to the Senegalese government, which pours a quarter of its national budget into education. … Tostan, a well-known non-governmental organization in Senegal, began asking the same questions. Staff members launched focus groups, to research local ideas about schools and child development. After four months, they concluded the root of the problem stretched beyond schools into village homes. Parents, although loving, were not speaking directly to their babies. Many avoided looking deeply into their babies’ eyes. … a baby in rural Senegal would hear about 200 words an hour, Tostan founder and chief executive officer Molly Melching says. Most of those were orders. No wonder they weren’t learning how to read, Melching posited. The language part of their brains was vastly underdeveloped. … The concept of djinns comes from both ancient African religions and the Koran. They are spirits, which can be helpful or hurtful. The hurtful ones, locals believe, can possess them. … Djinns are attracted to babies by jealousy, many locals believe. So, looking a baby in the eye is taboo, as is speaking directly to her. … “In our culture, if you talk with your child, you risk losing him,” says Tostan’s Penda Mbaye. She recalls how she was talking to her first baby when her grandmother warned her about djinns. “After that, I didn’t dare to do it.” … It is one thing to change the national course curriculum, or teacher training, or even severe malnutrition that stunts children’s brains. It’s another to change people’s cultural beliefs and corresponding behaviour. … Tostan facilitators developed a year-long class curriculum for parents. It includes lessons on everything from infant nutrition and children’s rights to sleep schedules and baby massage. The most important part though, is the new understanding of children’s growing brains. “We delve into brain development in a non-judgmental way,” Melching says.

This program seems to be working and mothers are enthusiastic, enjoying being able to interact with and talk to their babies. In a few years the data will be in and it will be seen what difference communication with babies brings. It is expected to not just improve language skills but IQ and general cognition.

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