Betty Hart and Todd Risley have been studying language development in infants and toddlers for a quarter century. They have been doing this not simply for academic reasons, but to find the real causes of the advantage that higher class kids have over poor kids. Their main finding is that, in general, the higher the class of the family, the more they talk to their babies. And their amount of talk– not their social class or income or race -- predicted their children’s intellectual accomplishments.
The most graphic example of what difference this makes is the finding I have used as the title of this post.
All families talk some to get on with the necessary business of life. What is added in talkative families is talk that describes the world, expresses emotions, tries out ideas. Every family has an average level of talkativeness, starting from this baseline of necessary business. The average family in Hart and Risley's study said something 400 times an hour, with the group ranging from 200 to 600 utterances an hour. This means that the average 3 year old has heard 8 million words; the children of silent families hear only half of that, while the toddlers of the talkers have already heard 12 million words. By three, kids learn to talk at their family's average level, and stop there.
Hart and Risley are quick to point out that there are enormous variations in how much parents talk to their children. There are talkative welfare parents and silent professionals. In particular, the classes in the middle of this range, the working class and lower white collar families, show a huge range in how talkative they are.
So talk to your babies. About anything.