It’s not enough for them to hear language around them, adults talking to each other, people talking on TV or other screens: you have to address them directly. And guess what, it helps if you talk about what the child – even the baby – is interested in. By the time they are two, children from more deprived backgrounds are already 6 months behind in their language development if they miss out on this.
Stanford Professor Anne Fernald introduced her research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting last month (Talking to Kids video, from 5-8 minutes in). She is working with Spanish-speaking low-income families in California on the ¡Habla conmigo! (Talk with Me!) project to get Latina mothers to engage more verbally with their children. It’s much better to speak your native language well than a learned language poorly, because it’s richer and more complex: but these families also face the reality of a monolingual education ahead of them, in English.
Fernald used a sort of linguistic pedometer called a LENA to measure how many different words a young child hears each day (25 minutes in to the AAAS video). “Children can’t learn what they don’t hear” so complex language is better than simple language. And bilingual children – for example in Wales, where their schooling could be in Welsh or English – learn more language, but “it’s not for free”, as they learn more slowly (Professor Erika Hoff, Florida Atlantic University, 30 minutes in).
Bilingualism is not just an economic and career decision, however: it is often a choice between whether you can talk to your grandparents in their native language or not. The first letter I wrote in Polish, aged 18, was sent back by grandfather with red pen corrections all over it. It was worth it in the end, but I still wish I’d started sooner…
The illustration, titled “talk to me”, is by Mahmood Mokhtari.