It’s hard to wrap your mind around the concept of 30 million anything. It’s the population of Malaysia. It’s the number of Ashley Madison accounts unearthed by hackers. The price of a castle in Kentucky.
It’s also the gap between the number of words a well-to-do child hears by the end of age 3, versus any one of their less fortunate peers. Thirty million words. And that gap has a persistent impact on learning, literacy, and education.
Crazy, right? I spoke to Professor Dana Suskind, MD, founder and director of the Thirty Million Words Initiative and author of the book of the same name, about how something as simple as talking is linked to lifelong success.
So, is it really as simple as ‘Talk?’
Yes and no. It comes down to the brain. Talking and language, especially in the first three years, is food for the developing brain.
What it isn’t is 30 million random words. It’s not all about quantity. It’s the quantity and quality of the parent talk.
And we aren’t doing it? That seems so astonishing to me.
[Researchers] Betty Hart and Todd Risley shined a light on the impact of poverty and stress and culture on how much parents talk and interact.
And there’s also the emergence of attention-consuming technology — the iPads and the iPhones. Go to any park and see that parent talk is being impacted. The brain still needs it.
How does parent talk work?
Parent talk doesn’t just build babies’ brains and vocabulary. It builds all aspects of a child and their academic trajectory, executive function, social-emotional skills. Even math and spatial skills. Kids hear more number and measurements words. Even generosity. The real crux of the book that is fact that parent talk builds all aspects of our children’s success — and you don’t have to buy any technology or toys.
How is talking — in particularly, parentese — linked to literacy? Cooing seems the opposite of, you know, SAT words.
Baby talk always gets trashed. It’s not gaga googoo; it’s the intonation. What’s interesting is that it helps a baby tune in. It helps get the baby’s attention. In studies, the brain lights up with parentese. It’s such an important part. Parents do it all over the world.
The singsong voice helps the babies parse words and segments of words and sounds. When we’re born, it’s not like the speech has clear breaks. Parentese helps baby’s brain understand letters, phonemes, words. It’s incredibly important.
The crux of the book is the Three Ts. Can you tell me a little bit about how they work?
Thirty million words is a metaphor for richness in language environment. We culled it down to three basic things a parent needs to do to provide a rich language environment.
Tune in. This is the first step. You need to be tuned in to what your child is focused on for language to stick. If they’re distracted by a TV show, they aren’t really hearing you.
Talk more. Tune in, and then start talking about what you’re doing. Start narrating. What do you say to a 3-month-old? You can talk about the laundry you’re doing, whatever you’re cooking, what’s happening in the here and now or in the future or the past. And use rich words to go along with it.
Take turns. It’s hard to think of babies as a conversation partner; before they have words, it feels foreign. But from day one — or almost from day one — they’re practicing having a conversation with gestures, grimaces, babbles. You can respond and keep it going. That’s the crux of a rich language environment.
How to Practice 30 Million Words at Home
Thirty million sounds unfathomable, but, in reality, you get there one word at a time. Here are some examples that any parent can do to develop a rich language environment at home. As Suskind explains, “Every routine and activity can be an opportunity for brain building and language.”
Getting dressed — and counting
- Tune In: A parent notices that a toddler wants to help dress him- or herself in the morning.
- Talk More: “Your romper has five snaps. Can you help Mommy count them? One, two, three, four, five. Five snaps to snap and you’ll be ready to go.”
- Take Turns: The child takes turns by snapping the snaps and counting with Mom. One… Two… Three…
Playing dress-up — and learning about size and scale
- Tune In: A child walks around the living room wearing his father’s shoes.
- Talk More: “You’re wearing Daddy’s shoes. They sure are big on you! Daddy has big feet so he needs big shoes. Look at the difference in Daddy’s feet compared to yours. Yours are much smaller.”
- Take Turns: “Whose shoes are bigger? Daddy’s or yours? Right! Daddy’s shoes are much bigger than yours. But your feet are growing. That’s why we needed to buy you new shoes last week. Your old shoes were squeezing your toes. They were much too small.”
Helping mom with a problem — and learning emotional self-regulation and problem-solving
- Tune In: Mom is headed out the door but just realized she can’t find her keys. Mom explains without sounding annoyed or stressed.
- Talk More: “I don’t believe I lost my keys again. This is the third time this week I’ve misplaced them. I’m really upset with myself. I’m going to be late for work. Can you help Mommy look for her keys?”
- Take Turns: “Do you see the keys under the table? That was good thinking to look there because Mommy sometimes leaves her keys on top. They could have fallen. Should we look on the kitchen counter too?”
With younger babies and newborns, it’s less about the script, and more about simply narrating what you’re doing and responding to their coos and gurgles. Those coos and gurgles will become babble will become “ball” and “dog” and full on sentences, soon enough — and at each stage, the words you speak, and how you speak them, are building baby’s brain.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Professor Dana Suskind, MD, is both founder and director of the Thirty Million Words Initiative, which is based on scientific research that demonstrates the critical importance of early language exposure on the developing child. Dr. Suskind received the University of Chicago Medical Faculty Award as “Distinguished Leader in Program Innovation.” She is an advisor on The Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail initiative and part of the White House initiative on creating a pathway to ending the achievement gap. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.