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Chattering to babies may be even better than reading to them (nymag.com)
67 points by pepys on Jan 6, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 47 comments



It makes intuitive sense, however much that's worth. It's likely that parents (and others) will spend much more time talking to an infant than reading to it. Also, conversations will naturally occur in context with the surrounding actions. Reading's a somewhat artificial activity that demands concentration -- i.e. excluding other sense information. Whereas conversation about daily life can engage all the senses.

So, more data + more correlations with daily life and other senses = better learning?


Maybe I'm looking at this from the wrong angle, but also, parents have not known how to read to their children except the last couple hundred years. Before that whatever children learned, in terms of verbal communication, was by listening as bystanders and interactively with other perhaps older children/siblings and adults. And when there were many more people and generations in a household, you got lots more exposure to conversations... but again, I might be looking at this the wrong way.


>Reading's a somewhat artificial activity that demands concentration -- i.e. excluding other sense information. Whereas conversation about daily life can engage all the senses. //

This I find strange. Reading demands concentration, sure, but we're talking about being read to as the comparison for conversation. So instead of having a story read to you, and the ensuing imagination of any aspect of anything you can imagine - the smell of a dragon's lair, the feeling of riding on a giant frog, the taste of snozcumbers, ... - you're stuck with concentrating on someone talking and being limited to the domain of real world interactions.

Imagination is no more artificial than conversation - both seem able to engage all the senses but immersion in a fantastical tale seems more likely to do so to me than talking to some one (unless the conversation is specifically tailored to multi-sensory awareness, which is certainly a facet of some conversation I have in my parenting).


The article is about infants. The idea that the images on the page even describe anything is a more advanced and abstract concept that comes later, developmentally. Think of pointer indirection.

Mimicry comes first, so an infant can learn that when they see Dora they should say "Dora". When they put something down or finish eating, everyone seems to say "all done" and clap, so they start saying "all done" and clapping. There's a whole range of sophisticated seeming behaviours that can be trained easily by simple mimicry.

So, wrt. to reading. Things that infants can learn easily are picking up / putting down / fetching books. The nice feel of sitting with a parent and a book (which will hopefully lead to favourable thoughts towards reading, later). Also, mimicking sounds that parents make on specific pages. E.g. "BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, Mister Brown makes thunder" might trigger "BOOO BOOO BOOO".

Think about it this way -- imagine reading with an infant. You could substitute / make up all of the words but go through the motions and they would imitate your words instead of what's in the book. I.e. mimic conversation in context. They really have no idea of the content of the book, or even that it's significant, compared to all the actions / conversation around the activity of reading a book.


The article is about babies. They aren't really at the point where they are even able to imagine abstract ideas, they are mostly associating words with objects.


I know I'm being nit-picky, but words are associated with experiences, not objects. (E.g., "red" is not an object. "circle" is not an object.)

This is especially important when you consider the fact that most people treat their language to be operating on some intricate notion of _reference_, when in fact it is based upon correlations of states of experience that may be very noisy. This kind of misunderstanding often leads people into a position where they do not know why things are true or why their words have meaning.


You're partially correct. Words we learn are linked to experience of their usage but they're also linked to other words and to tangible things in our experiences such as things like books or teachers or places which are objects. Objects have use-cases ie. Expected purposes and these are linked to the type of experiences you've personally had, imagined, or which seem to you likely or possible to have with a given object. When you go to a restaurant you have expectations in mind based on the restaurant object being linked to other restaurants.


>Words we learn are linked to experience of their usage but they're also linked to other words and to tangible things in our experiences such as things like books or teachers or places which are objects.

You and I are on the same page, but you're using the word 'experience' in a more narrow sense than I am. You can experience words and things that are (roughly) objects and my point still stands. Things that are objects are still better thought of generally as experiences. It's just more consistent.

Another way of putting this is that language learning is mostly about encoding the appropriateness of linguistic constructs in varying contexts. So it is appropriate to act like you are in a restaurant when you are in what looks to be a restaurant. It is appropriate to run with the pack. It is appropriate to run from a lion and chase down a gazelle. This is basically the whole point of a nervous system, if you want to go wild with it. We just evolved a specialized adaptation for using our 'appropriateness-engines' on words and symbols rather than general feelings of what is going on around us.

At least, that's a rough draft of what I'm getting at.


Would you recommend any references on this topic (words as reference vs. experience correlation)? Are there benefits to people who use permalinks and other citation-like references in online conversation? These may differentiate a static reference (e.g. a paper) vs. a dynamic one (Wikipedia or web search).


  http://m.pnas.org/content/111/51/18183.full

  Warning PDF download: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&ei=daOsVOyDLYOkyAS724DQDQ&url=http://nlp.lsi.upc.edu/papers/poveda06.pdf&ved=0CB4QFjAA&usg=AFQjCNFcEw-sjwSO3yy9gBSIaEV-p1hxLw&sig2=7QbewnQq4QtnxsRHwE28xQ

  http://php.scripts.psu.edu/pul8/neuralnetworks.shtml

  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/18271736/

  Philosophical: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_of_thought
EDIT sorry but I don't know how to insert a line break between URL's


You can enter two line breaks to put them in a new <p>.

Like these two lines of text.


- We've known about the value of talking to babies since Hart & Risley published their study in 1995: http://www.amazon.com/Meaningful-Differences-Everyday-Experi...

- We've known that there is basically no value in reading to your kids since Scarborough & Dobrich published their report in 1994.

All very important to know, but at this point this is kind of a useless article because it's highlighting only one random result out of hundreds of studies that have looked at these issues.


You second point sent me googling. I found, among other things, this:

http://www.readingonline.org/articles/burgess/

Is it really as settled as you present it? From my brief survey it appears that reading to/with preschool-aged kids has some measurable effect on reading development, and that it has a more substantial effect on oral language skills. Is that inaccurate?

It seems incredible to me that narrating events would be of great value but reading, examining, and asking questions about a picture book (these are the things you do when reading a picture book to kids, you don't just read the text aloud) would be of very little or no value.


> Is it really as settled as you present it?

One of the most interesting findings from Scarborough & Dobrich, which looks like it was replicated by the study you linked to, is that the number of books in a child's home is a much greater predictor of later literacy ability than the amount parents actually read to their kids. A couple things to note though:

- Intrinsic motivation plays a big role in this. E.g. if a kid enjoys have books read to them, it will probably be beneficial. But if a kid would rather be doing something else, then reading to them may be actively harmful, in that it may actually make them read less on their own later even though otherwise they would have eventually come to enjoy reading.

- The way you read to your kid matters. E.g. asking questions about the book as you're reading is more beneficial than just reading, and even the way you phrase the questions makes a difference. That Hart & Risley book I linked to above has some data about how the cognitive benefits of asking questions depends on their grammatical structure.

Also, for what it's worth this may be related to the audio/video gap. I.e. talking to kids has a huge benefit for them, but playing recordings or videos of people talking has essentially no benefit.


> [...] the number of books in a child's home is a much greater predictor of later literacy ability than the amount parents actually read to their kids.

Haha, YES! My decision to reverse the process of reducing the size of my giant library of dead-tree books after my first kid was born is JUSTIFIED BY SCIENCE! :-)

> That Hart & Risley book I linked to above has some data about how the cognitive benefits of asking questions depends on their grammatical structure.

I will definitely check that out, thanks.

[EDIT] Incidentally, the number-of-books-matter thing fits well with my hunch that modeling behavior is extremely important to encourage similar behavior in children, assuming the adults in those households tend to read more than the average. It strikes me as crazy to expect kids to, say, enthusiastically take violin lessons, read, and play sports when their parents never play music, never read (except to their kids, perhaps), and rarely exercise at all let alone actually play an organized sport.


>playing recordings or videos of people talking has essentially no benefit.

Really? I thought it had some, but possibly only if access to real conversation was limited. Any good reading on this?


Just google for "video deficit."


'preschool-aged kids' are at completely different stage than 'babies' :)


I thought we were talking about talking/reading to babies, not pre-schoolers?


Gah, I phrased it poorly. The link I provided is, as best I can tell, using it in the sense of not yet in school, literally pre-school, not about a year before Kindergarten as it is sometimes used and as my phrasing implies.


This article seems to be highly linked to a study summarized by this NYT article [1] where Hart and Risley were studying how parents of different socioeconomic backgrounds talked to their babies. Every month, the researchers visited the 42 families in the study and recorded an hour of parent-child interaction.

The study found that amount of variety in exposed words from real people mattered much more than just the amount of words a child was exposed to, when it relates to their development.

[1]http://mobile.nytimes.com/blogs/opinionator/2013/04/10/the-p...


So while I haven't read the PDF (I don't have an account/institution), I wonder how robust this study is given that it's based on a questionnaire on how often people talk to their babies. This kind of self-reporting is often troubled as the assumptions as to what 'always' means is very relative on a per person basis. It wouldn't surprise me that people who read frequently to their baby might under report how much they speak to their baby when given a line of questioning about it, and vice versa.

I also question how much you can really test a baby for cognitive development that is robust against time to say anything about adulthood. The Ages and Stages questionnaire used is about assessing delayed development versus adulthood, and the sensitivity is as low as 51% for the 4-month ASQ and 75% overall, and the specificity is 86% [1]. These numbers themselves aren't super great which only will compound with the cohort study in question.

It's probably better to do both, especially as when the child ages reading to them helps them gain practice reading themselves. I fear that many people will look at a headline like this and feel like they can avoid reading to their kids by turning on the radio.

[1] http://www.psychwiki.com/dms/other/labgroup/Measufsdfsdbger3...


Agreed. Reporting behavior could be correlated with unobservables that are driving the results. Interesting study but far from conclusive. IMHO correlations like this are useful for driving future, more rigorous research, not for drawing broad conclusions.


Their link to the paper contains a typo, at least as I see it.

Fixed:

https://www.esri.ie/publications/latest_publications/view/in...


My son is about 18 months old and we are bringing him up bilingually. He is currently very echolalic. It is fascinating.

He copies things he hears, normally one or two of the words from sentences people say around him. You can also give him new words and he repeats them almost exactly.

I spend lots of the limited time I get with him pointing at things and telling him what they are. He loves these word games too. We also look at lots of picture books, but he seems to take in more when we just "talk".

I really love this period of the children growing up. They haven't quite reached that 'terrible twos' stage yet.


Grossly speculating, but it probably has the long-term benefit of getting the parent in the habit of talking to the kid about various things later on.


It's a bit foggy but I think a German emperor (might have been Wilhelm II) wanting to know the language of angels took several babies and instructed their caretakers to take good care of them but not to talk to them, at all.

His reasoning was that the babies would start to speak the original language of humans.

All the babies died.

Whatever you do, read, talk, sing or even rant but communicate with your baby.


Having a newborn myself (three weeks tomorrow!), I can't imagine not talking to him at every possible opportunity. Carrying him around, putting him down, picking him up, burping him, changing him, we fill it all with words because that's just what makes sense. I really can't picture someone not doing that.


Allegedly performed by Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II in the 13th century. Not Willhelm II, who lived into the 20th century.


That's great! It's about time I am so fucking tired of the Big Red Dog: the same stupid dog featured in hundreds of books.


Compared to other parents, highly verbal parents both talk more to their children and pass on genes for higher verbal ability, so it's impossible to reach a firm conclusion on the value of "chattering" (or reading, etc.) from such studies unless they control for genes. Judging from the abstract, this study did not.


I am not sure where you made a link between having idle one sided chatter with a baby = having genes for high verbal ability.

Anyways, there's a lot of research that does consider nature vs nurture... http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/201...


The key issue is that there could be a link. Because of this possibility, you need to control for genes to reach any strong conclusions. For example, you could check to see if the verbal ability of adoptive children more closely resembles the ability of their (adopted) siblings or of their biological parents. Or you could compare twins reared apart to see if their abilities more closely track each other's or those of their adoptive parents.

The Slate article you linked doesn't deal with nature vs. nurture at all. It simply assumes that nature doesn't matter, approvingly citing the views of one researcher who makes the astonishing claim that "Children aren’t born smart. They’re made smart by their parents talking to them." This view is definitively disproven both by studies of adoptive children and by studies of twins reared apart (not to mention common sense—cognitive ability must be at least partly heritable, else there would be no way for ever smarter animals to have evolved). For more details, I recommend The Blank Slate by Stephen Pinker.


- We've known about the value of talking to babies since Hart & Risley published their study in 1995: http://www.amazon.com/Meaningful-Differences-Everyday-Experi...

- We've known that there is basically no value in reading to your kids since Scarborough & Dobrich published their report in 1994.

Very important to know, but not news.


- We've known about the value of talking to babies since Hart & Risley published their study in 1995: http://www.amazon.com/Meaningful-Differences-Everyday-Experi...

- We've known that there is basically no value in reading to your kids since Scarborough & Dobrich published their report in 1994.

This really isn't news.


- We've known about the value of talking to babies since Hart & Risley published their study in 1995: http://www.amazon.com/Meaningful-Differences-Everyday-Experi...

- We've known that there is basically no value in reading to your kids since Scarborough & Dobrich published their report in 1994.

This really isn't news.


- We've known about the value of talking to babies since Hart & Risley published their study in 1995: http://www.amazon.com/Meaningful-Differences-Everyday-Experi...

- We've known that there is basically no value in reading to your kids since Scarborough & Dobrich published their report in 1994.

This really isn't news.


- We've known about the value of talking to babies since Hart & Risley published their study in 1995: http://www.amazon.com/Meaningful-Differences-Everyday-Experi...

- We've known that there is basically no value in reading to your kids since Scarborough & Dobrich published their report in 1994.

This really isn't news.


- We've known about the value of talking to babies since Hart & Risley published their study in 1995: http://www.amazon.com/Meaningful-Differences-Everyday-Experi...

- We've known that there is basically no value in reading to your kids since Scarborough & Dobrich published their report in 1994.


It would never have occurred to me to read to my baby, to be honest. Do other parents do that?


Everyone I know (in the UK) does this from an early age. Not sure why - tradition? Like Johnny 5 in short circuit babies "need input!". Our one year old has enjoyed listening to music, watching tv (not kids TV and not too much) played with tablets, remote controls, and played with my instruments and guitar amps. Ever since she's been able to crawl she's been grabbing books from her little shelf and bringing them over for me to read for her.


Her bringing books sounds great.


We don't read actual books to them yet, but since a constant supply of words helps their cognitive development we basically talk to our baby at every opportunity. Reading twitter, food packaging, store signs, singing songs (even if we can't remember the actual lyrics), explaining how to make a good reuben sandwich. I'm glad to see the research bears it out.


Talking I do as well - usually just describing what I'm doing at the moment while I carry her around. Or telling her how incredibly cute she is.


Grossly speculating, but it probably has the long-term benefit of getting the parent in the habit of talking to the kid about various things later on.


Grossly speculating, but it probably has the long-term benefit of getting the parent in the habit of talking to the kid about various things later on.


Grossly speculating, but it probably has the long-term benefit of getting the parent in the habit of talking to the kid about various things later on.




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