August 10, 2016

A Little Quiet for Toddlers

Background noise makes it hard for toddlers to pick up language. So turn off the TV.

Television. Computers streaming movies and TV shows. Texts and cell phone alerts. It’s a noisy — and distracting — world out there these days. Imagine being a toddler trying to learn a language with so many inputs going on at once.

As you can probably guess, it's not easy. In fact, when there’s more background noise, two-year olds who are learning language have a harder time picking up words, a new study shows.

Luckily, the research also offers some insights about how we can help our kids learn new words in less-than-ideal situations.

University of Wisconsin researchers had toddlers 22-24 months old watch a video screen where the meaning of new words were explained through images. At the same time, either soft or loud conversations were played on tape to create the experience of background noise.

TV, radio, household appliances and gadgets can make for a lot of background noise indoors, and noise on the street or in restaurants can make it loud out of the house as well.

When the toddlers were tested to see if they’d learned the words, only those in the quiet background noise condition had picked up the words. The same result was found when slightly older kids — 28-30 months — did the same task, which suggests that even a slightly more mature brain is affected by a noisy environment.

Given how loud life at home and outside the home can be, this is an important finding. TV, radio, household appliances and gadgets produce a lot of background noise indoors, and noise on the street or in restaurants can help create a loud environment outside the house as well. And while you may be able to make your home quieter at times, much of the noise of our daily lives is pretty much out of our control.

Children's ability to pick up on and learn words is an important skill, according to author Brianna McMillan. It's one of the major building blocks of academic achievement. “Modern homes are filled with noisy distractions such as TV, radio, and people talking that could affect how children learn words at early ages. Our study suggests that adults should be aware of the amount of background speech in the environment when they're interacting with young children.”

But there was another interesting insight that came from the University of Wisconsin study. A second group of toddlers was exposed to softer background noise while also being presented with new words. Later on, they were exposed to louder background noise and shown the meanings of the words — and this time they were able to learn them. This finding suggests that when toddlers are primed in a quieter environment, they can learn in a noisier environment.

“Hearing new words in fluent speech without a lot of background noise before trying to learn what objects the new words corresponded to may help very young children master new vocabulary,” co-author, Jenny Saffran, adds.

Don't be fooled into thinking that some quiet time in front of the television is going to help expose your child to language.

In real life, this might mean exposing our kids to as much language as possible at home or in other quiet environments — like story hours or during visits to friends and grandparents. Then the exposure to the words will make it easier for kids to pick up the words and their meaning when things are louder later on.

The results definitely speak to those parents living in cities, and anyone who has a TV, computer, or tablet in their home. Toddlers may have a much harder time picking up language when a TV is blaring in the background. Don't be fooled into thinking that some quiet time in front of the television is going to help expose your child to language. TV is not good for learning language. It cannot replace the interactions between babies and their caregivers in which caregivers respond to toddlers' cues. You may be able to concentrate with the radio on, but it may be better for your baby or toddler to turn it down or, better yet, turn it off.

The study is published in the journal, Child Development.
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