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Home > Research Articles > Study: Out with the baby talk


Saturday, November 16, 2002

By Marcella S. Kreiter

UPI Correspondent From the Science & Technology Desk

Published 11/14/2002 1:42 PM CHICAGO, Nov. 14 (UPI) -- Talking cutesy wootsey to a young child does little to help that child develop the complex cognitive language skills needed for such tasks as math but speaking to a child in complicated sentences actually improves his or her ability to understand, a study released Thursday suggests.

In the study, published in the November issue of Cognitive Psychology, Janellen Huttenlocker, co-director of the University of Chicago's Center for Early Childhood research, found children who were exposed to complex language early in life were twice as likely to use complex sentences.

"You don't want to waste a child's energy teaching them made up words," Huttenlocher told UPI. "There's something special about the human brain. Only humans acquire syntax -- but that only happens after an enormous amount of language input."

"We found sizable individual differences among children in the proportion of multi-clause sentences produced as well as comprehending," Huttenlocher writes in "Language Input and Child Syntax," which she co-authored with researchers Marina Vasilyeva and Elina Cymerman and psychology professor Susan Levine.

The team tested 305 children in 40 classrooms at 17 preschools in the Chicago area to determine the impact teachers had on language development. About one-third of the schools served high-income families, one-third low-income families, and another third a mix of incomes.

The children were tested for language comprehension at the beginning and end of the school year and teachers were observed and their speech patterns recorded in the middle of the year.

The children were shown pictures and asked to match them to such sentences as: "The boy is looking for the girl behind a chair but she is sitting under the table."

In classrooms where students had teachers who routinely used complex sentences, the student's ability to use and understand more complicated language greatly improved, the team found. The students' performance in classrooms where teachers used complicated language the most grew at twice the rate of students in the less language-rich classrooms. That finding prevailed even when other potential advantages -- such as high social and economic status -- were factored in.

"This means that children from low-income families, whose syntactic level is quite low at the beginning of the year, may grow as much or more than children from high income families," if the teachers speak in complex sentences, Huttenlocher said.

Psychology professor Erika Hoff, of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, said the research is important because it shows "individual differences among children in their language skills have their source with the different experiences with language that children have."

According to Hoff, "All normal children learn to talk. Clearly this is a characteristic of the species provided innately. Now if we ask how come some children have more advanced language skills than other children, it doesn't follow that they differ in that innate endowment. What the research shows is you can explain the differences among children as a result of differences in their experiences."

In earlier studies, Huttenlocher found the amount and variety of words children learn at home directly influence the acquisition of vocabulary.

"Our findings indicate that the greater the proportion of complex syntactic forms a child hears, the greater will be his or her ability to use these forms," Huttenlocker said.

Copyright © 2002 United Press International