A landmark 1995 study found that children from higher-income families hear about 30 million more words during their first three years than children from lower-income families. This “30-million-word gap” correlates with significant differences in tests of vocabulary, language development, and reading comprehension.
MIT cognitive scientists have now found that back-and-forth conversation between a child and an adult is more critical to language development than the word gap. In a study of kids aged four to six, differences in the number of “conversational turns” accounted for a large portion of the differences in brain physiology and language skills, regardless of parental income or education.
“The important thing is not just to talk to your child, but to talk with your child. It’s not just about dumping language into your child’s brain, but to actually carry on a conversation with them,” says Rachel Romeo, a graduate student at MIT and Harvard and lead author of the paper, which appeared in the journal Psychological Science.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers found that in kids who conversed more, Broca’s area, a part of the brain involved in speech production and language processing, was much more active while they listened to stories. This brain activation predicted kids’ scores on language assessments, fully explaining income-related differences in language skills.
This paper “provides the first evidence that family conversation at home is associated with brain development in children,” says brain and cognitive sciences professor John Gabrieli, the study’s senior author. “It’s almost magical how parental conversation appears to influence the biological growth of the brain.”
DeepMind’s cofounder: Generative AI is just a phase. What’s next is interactive AI.
“This is a profound moment in the history of technology,” says Mustafa Suleyman.
What to know about this autumn’s covid vaccines
New variants will pose a challenge, but early signs suggest the shots will still boost antibody responses.
Human-plus-AI solutions mitigate security threats
With the right human oversight, emerging technologies like artificial intelligence can help keep business and customer data secure
Next slide, please: A brief history of the corporate presentation
From million-dollar slide shows to Steve Jobs’s introduction of the iPhone, a bit of show business never hurt plain old business.
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.