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Helping Children Learn to Communicate

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This blog continues my series to share the research of child development researchers and neuroscientists who have genuinely inspired me in my 11-year journey to create Mind in the Making. Their work is truly "research to live by."

I am sharing the story of Anne Fernald of Stanford University because her studies provide important insights into helping children learn to communicate. This is an increasingly salient issue in our times where there is widespread concern that communicating has been reduced to spitting out sound bites rather than illuminating the complexities of situations, texting rather than connecting, and reducing thoughts to 140 characters.

Anne Fernald has been a pioneering researcher in studying the origins of human communication, but she didn't start out to do this kind of work. Her original interests were in literature. All of that changed when she went to live in Germany, far from home, surrounded by a language, German, that she initially didn't understand. The stark contrast in the culture and the language caused her to look back not only on her own culture and language in new ways, but also to begin to probe the very nature of communication. This was accelerated by the birth of her two children. Fernald says, "Our children were born there. Becoming a parent in another language is a wonderful experience because it gave me distance."

Fernald pulled back and observed what happens in everyday moments. She says:

"What drew me to the study of language was a moment of epiphany. One of my dear friends had a baby a few months before our second daughter was about to be born, and I was asked to be the godmother of this child. [I] went to the hospital on the second day and my friend put her newborn child into my hands to introduce us."

To her own surprise, Fernald introduced herself to her godchild in singsong German, "I immediately thought: now where did that come from? Was this a performance for her German-speaking mother? Or was I just intuitively trying to engage with this newborn baby?"

Not only was Fernald acutely aware of her words, but she was also struck by the fact that she was singing them. When her own baby was born a few weeks later, she found herself singing the same kind of melody to her newborn -- this time in English.

Fernald's experiences in a new country led her into what has become a lifelong study of communication, beginning as a volunteer in a scientific center studying infant development in Germany and continuing to graduate school and then to Stanford University, where she is now a professor.

In her own first study, Fernald recorded German mothers talking to their newborns, analyzing the tones of their voices as one would analyze music. She found that the range of their voices stretched across two octaves. She wondered if infants actually prefer this way of talking (called infant-directed speech) to adult-directed speech and she developed one of the first auditory preference methods to address this question. The technique entailed her recording mothers' adult-directed and infant-directed speech:

"I had the moms speak to me and speak to their four-month-old. So the mom might say to me, 'Well, I don't take [my children] out so much, because it's been raining a lot,' but to her baby, she says, 'Hey, sugar bear! Hey, sugar bear!' I selected little sections of that speech and put them on tape."

Then she "trained" other four-month-olds so that if they turned their heads one way, they heard infant-directed speech, but if they turned them the other way, they heard adult-directed speech. She alternated the sides, so the findings wouldn't reflect a preexisting preference for the right or left sides, "We found babies would turn more in the direction [that would] turn on the infant-directed speech."

The first lesson from Fernald's research is that we have to be attuned to our children in order to communicate with them. When we are attuned, we adjust what we say to them and how we say it, not just send out random missives of words.

And it's not just words that we are communicating. Long before babies can understand words that connote feelings, they begin to differentiate among a range of emotions.

Fernald observed that parents also use their tone of voice to manage their infants' behavior, typically to praise or to prohibit. Curious to know if the parent's tone by itself was sufficient to regulate the child, she tape-recorded parents saying things that conveyed approval or prohibition in several different languages -- French, German, Italian, Japanese, British English, and American English. She and her colleagues then tested five-month-old American babies with these "messages" in unfamiliar languages:

These little American babies would hear the praise and they would smile and relax; they would hear the prohibition and they would stiffen a little and their eyes would widen. These sounds -- in a different language, from a total stranger -- had predictable effects on babies' behavior.

The second lesson is that our feelings about our children -- of approval or disapproval, for example -- are transmitted to them even before they can understand words.

In her most recent research, Fernald has examined how efficiently children process new words. She has created experiments to investigate this:

"The baby is sitting on mom's lap in a little booth and there are two pictures on two monitors that the child is looking at, to the left and to the right.

Let's say that on the left monitor is a picture of a dog and on the right monitor is a picture of a baby, though the positions of these pictures are changed throughout the experiment. When the child hears, "Where's the baby?" the researchers look at how the child processes this information and when the child begins to shift attention to look at the picture that has just been named. Does the child begin to shift his or her focus upon hearing the first syllable "bay," or does the child wait until the whole word, "baby," is said?"

Fernald calls this efficiency of processing or fluency of processing and it develops rapidly from about 12 to 24 months and beyond. She explains that if a child doesn't need to wait until the end of a word to "grab it," he or she is ready for the word that comes along next, "When you're a very young language learner, what comes next is likely to be new, so the [more efficiently] you can process familiar words, the [better able you are] to attend to the new information that comes along and potentially make use of it."

They have found this to be the case. Children who processed language more quickly when they were younger had greater vocabulary growth in their second year.

Children differ in their efficiency in processing language. How parents talk with children matters. In a longitudinal study, Fernald and her colleagues found that the children of mothers who spoke more, used different words for the same object, used different types of words, and spoke in longer phrases to their children at 18 months, not only had larger vocabularies but were faster at processing words at twenty-four months. As Fernald puts it, these "little differences can add up to a big effect." "For the young child, there are always new things to be learned in almost every sentence they hear. So that advantage, small as it is, can add up to a big advantage later on, because the capacity for learning is then increased," Fernald says.

The final lesson is that communicating is not talking at children, it is talking with children in a give and take way -- the child says something, we elaborate and extend what they say.

In doing so, we are not only providing children with tools for communicating, we are also engaging them in using language to express themselves and to learn about their world. For those who are concerned about communication skills in our society, it is important to remember that having rich and responsive conversations with young children is the foundation for healthy communications in the future.

This story is taken from Mind in the Making. For an excerpt of the video of Anne Fernald go to Language Processing Efficiency: The Skill of Communicating.