CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—Chances are, your baby won’t respond to questions like, “How was your day, honey?” Or, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” But just because infants can’t form sentences until toddlerhood doesn’t mean that they don’t benefit from early conversations with their parents. It’s long been observed that the better children perform in school and the more successful their careers, the higher the socioeconomic status (SES) of their family—and, according to Stanford University’s Anne Fernald, this has a lot to do with how parents of different SES speak to their babies. Those babies that are spoken to frequently in an engaging and nurturing way—generally from a higher SES—tend to develop faster word-processing skills, or the ability to follow a sentence from one object or setting to another. This word processing speed, in turn, directly relates to the development not just of vocabulary and language skills, but also memory and nonverbal cognitive abilities. In a new study, Fernald and colleagues measured parent-baby banter from round-the-clock recordings in babies’ homes, then tested those babies’ word-processing speed using retinal-following experiments that tracked how long it took them to follow a prompt to an image like a dog or juice. The researchers found that the differences in word-processing speed between high and low SES were stark: By 2 years of age, high SES children were 6 months ahead of their low SES counterparts; and by age 3, the differences in processing abilities were highly predictive of later performance in and out of school, the team reported here today at the annual meeting of AAAS, which publishes Science. Fernald hopes that this research will lead to interventions that help to shrink the language gap between kids on either side of the income gap.
See more of our coverage from AAAS 2014.