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Study: Talking to Toddlers Strengthens Language Skills

Grandfather and Boy on Beach
Photograph by Getty Images/Fuse

When you talk to a toddler, do you feel like they're actually listening to you? Well, new research shows that they are, and they're benefiting from the interaction.

A new study by Stanford University psychologists examined how 19-month-old toddlers from low-income Latino families interacted with their surroundings. The researchers wanted to examine whether or not the overwhelming belief that a child's socioeconomic status (SES) largely determines their vocabulary was true.

The 29 children wore shirts with microphones in them to record all interactions. Researchers believed that previous studies performed in a lab with just the mother produced skewed results, because toddlers hear many more voices and sounds throughout the day that could help with speech development.

The results were staggering. The psychologists found that children who experienced more direct speech from an adult (when an adult would speak to the toddler) developed better vocabularies by just 24 months old (they tested the kids six months after the initial study). A lead researcher with the study noted, "Mere exposure to speech directed to others or on TV is not enough to drive early vocabulary development. Toddlers learn language in the context of meaningful interactions with those around them."

Researchers also found that the toddlers who were exposed to more direct speech also became "faster and more reliable" at interpreting words, which in turn helps them learn other new words. A co-author of the study summed up the results by saying, "SES does not determine the quality of children's language experience. Despite the challenges associated with living in poverty, some of these moms were really engaged with their children, and their kids were more advanced in processing efficiency and vocabulary." Bottom line: Talking to children, rather than just around them, will help them tremendously with their speech development and vocabulary, regardless of income and socioeconomic status.

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