I read an excellent article on language development in The New York Times the other day: The Power of Talking to Your Baby. I highly recommend a look, but if you’re pressed for time, here’s my tweetable summary:
The more that goes in, the more that comes out.
“The key to early learning,” contends the author, Tina Rosenberg, “is talking—specifically, a child’s exposure to language spoken by parents and caretakers from birth to age 3, the more the better.”
She cites research conducted by Betty Hart and Todd Risley at the University of Kansas. In their research, Hart and Risley recorded the interactions between parents and babies in 42 families of various backgrounds. They then “transcribed and analyzed every word on the tapes—a process that took six years.”
What did the researchers discover through this painstaking process? They found a correlation between the volume of speech spoken by parents to their children in the earliest years and the child’s language ability and performance in school at a later age. “The important variable was how much talking the parents were doing,” Risley remarked.
And when it comes to raising bilingual children, I think this is doubly true.
Quantity (and quality) of speech
First, let me say that other factors surely influence language development, too, particularly each child’s individual nature. Still, all things being equal, I would agree wholeheartedly that the sheer quantity of speech directed at the child by the parents and caregivers from birth to age 3 has a tremendous impact on the growth of that child’s language ability. (Of course, the quality of that speech is important, too—engaging, interactive speech will obviously be more beneficial than barking and cursing.)
In terms of budding bilingual children and their minority language, perhaps we can sum up this idea in a pithy principle:
The more you talk to your child, and the more you read aloud to your child, the more active your child will become in using that language.
At the same time, I’m afraid the reverse is also true as a general rule:
The less you talk to your child, and the less you read aloud to your child, the less active your child will be in using that language. (See What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language.)
Now, of course, “you” can be interpreted more broadly here to include other caregivers beyond the parents, as well as schooling in the minority language. But the point remains: In some way you must create sufficient exposure to the minority language in order for the child to develop active ability in that language; otherwise, the child’s ability will probably be more passive. (See How Many Hours Per Week Is Your Child Exposed to the Minority Language?)
Keep conscious and proactive
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that you talk your child’s ears off. Young brains need quiet time, too, to consolidate all the stimulation they receive each day. But I do think, and growing research seems to support this position, that keeping conscious and proactive, when it comes to communicating with our kids, is perhaps the most powerful thing of all in nurturing language development. (To increase interaction with somewhat older children, try these ideas: Strange-But-True Tales: Baby Chicks in the Bathtub and Using Made-Up Memories to Engage Bilingual Kids.)
And remember, although birth to age 3 is a vital time for supporting the minority language (see Warning to New Parents Who Dream of Raising a Bilingual Child), it’s never too late to take advantage of the idea that “The more that goes in, the more that comes out.” Because even if your child is older, and isn’t using the target language much at the moment, if you continue doing what you can to put more in, the odds that it will eventually come out one day will only grow.