Thirty Million Words
The importance of talking to babies, and how to make your chatter more effective.
One day I was shopping with my firstborn in her stroller, holding up different shirts and asking her opinion. Other shoppers looked at me like I was nuts, and one even stopped and said, “I don’t think she’s going to answer you”. I fully realized my two-month-old infant was not very likely to give me a response, but I enjoyed talking with her. I wasn’t aware of how crucial that chatter is to infants until I read “Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain” by Dana Suskind. The phrase “talking is teaching” reminds us that babies benefit from hearing talking, singing and reading every day. This may seem instinctive, but it often isn’t, and even for those of us that are talkers by nature, the information this book provides will guide us in making our talking more beneficial to our children and grandchildren.
Dr. Suskind is a surgeon that specializes in cochlear implants. As she followed up with her pediatric patients post implant, she was unprepared for the results. In the beginning of her career, she expected her young cochlear implant patients to have similar outcomes and was surprised to see major differences in language development. As she studied her patients’ results, she concluded the disparities were linked to the language environment of the home. Even when the cochlear implants restored hearing to the same level in children, their language development appeared to be directly linked to the quantity and quality of words they heard in the home.
Dr. Suskind’s findings in her cochlear implant patients led her to further research brain and language development in all children. The first three years are critical in developing the full potential in brain development and how a child is spoken to has a significant impact. As Dr. Suskind explains in the opening chapter, “By the end of age three, the human brain, including it’s one hundred billion neurons, has completed about 85% of its physical growth, a significant part of the foundation for all thinking and learning. The development of that brain, science shows us, is absolutely related to the language environment of the young child.” Although this book may seem a little intimidating, it can be boiled down to three simple ideas, the three T’s.
- Tune in-Make a conscious effort to be aware of what your child is interested in and talk with them about that. For instance, if your toddler is focused on stacking blocks, sit down and talk about the blocks and what the child is doing. Meet them where they are instead of attempting to disengage them from their activity and re-engage them in yours. Parental responsiveness is key to behavior and brain development. Put simply, they need to know parents are listening and willing to respond in a loving, giving way. Repetition has proven to be critical in the learning process, so even if you are sick of reading “Llama, Llama Red Pajama” twenty times a day, your child needs to hear the same words over and over to learn. Part of tuning in is also tuning out any digital distractions. Put away your phone, iPad, etc. and totally focus on your child.
- Talk More– Nobody needs to tell me to talk more! However, Dr. Suskind instructs that it’s not just the quantity but also quality. She recommends narration of daily activities so they associate words with actions and objects. In the beginning this consists of simply talking about what you’re doing such as “I’m washing the dishes, I get them wet and scrub them, rinse them and then dry them” as you are doing the actions. As they begin to have their own words, you start scaffolding, which is taking their words and expanding on them. An example of this is when they pet the cat and say “kitty” you can respond with “Yes, you’re petting the kitty.” Putting more words in context helps the child increase their vocabulary. Hearing more meaningful words builds a child’s understanding of language.
- Take Turns-Engage the child in conversation, yes, even a baby. Although they won’t verbally answer at first, pause and listen to their cooing and babbling and pay attention to their non-verbal cues. An example of this is a baby rubbing their eyes and the parent saying, “You’re rubbing your eyes, are you tired?” As the child becomes more verbal, ask open-ended questions to encourage conversation. This stage requires patience as the child searches for the language to convey their thoughts. The back-and-forth exchanges are important for brain development and for the parent-child connection.
In this brief review I’ve barely skimmed the surface of all the valuable information in this book. It’s also motivating to know that what we’re saying and how we’re saying it does make a difference in the development of our children and grandchildren. Keeping the three T’s in mind has made me more conscious of my verbal interactions with my grandson. The first three years are vital in the development of a child’s brain development, and if talking more assists in helping Callister achieve his full potential, just call me Chatty Cathy!