LANGUAGE NUTRITION

Language Nutrition – A Public Health and Education Imperative

Just as healthy food nourishes a growing baby’s body, language nutrition nourishes a baby’s brain. Quantity and quality of nourishing language, like healthy food, is critical to brain development.

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Language-rich adult-child interactions, beginning at birth, have a direct impact on social-emotional and cognitive development and language and literacy ability.

The impact of adult-child interactions on the brains of infants and toddlers is unparalleled by any other stage of development, as this is the time when they are forming the neural “connections that build brain architecture – the foundation upon which all learning, behavior and health depend” (Center for the Developing Child, Harvard University). 

And a solid foundation of language nutrition - the use of language, beginning at birth, that is sufficiently rich in engagement, quality, quantity and context that it nourishes the child socially, neurologically and linguistically - is critical in developing a child’s capacity to learn.  

The Science behind Language Nutrition

During the first three years of life, the brain undergoes its most dramatic development, forming more neural connections in those years than at any other time period in their lives. When this early development is not nurtured, the brain’s architecture is adversely affected and young children fall behind in their development and learning.

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The quality of the relationships that young children form with the adults in their lives affects all aspects of a child’s development – intellectual, social, emotional, and physical – and lays the foundation for critical developmental outcomes. A major ingredient of this developmental process is the “serve and return” – or back and forth communication exchange – between infants and their parents and other caregivers. Because babies can’t talk at birth, their communication includes eye contact, facial expressions, crying, laughing, touch, and more.


Early exposure to language sets the foundation for cognitive ability, literacy, school readiness and, ultimately, educational achievement. It is both the quality and quantity of words a baby hears that brings richness to the child’s vocabulary and has a profound impact on his school performance, IQ, and life trajectory. 

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Language nutrition is the use of language that is sufficiently rich in engagement, quality, quantity, and context that it nourishes the child neurologically, socially and linguistically.

Language nutrition is effective in any language. Parents and caregivers of “Dual language learners” – or children who are developing in their home language and in English – should speak in the language they are most comfortable speaking, whether or not it is English.An extensive body of research highlights the many benefits that speaking more than one language has on many areas of development including cognitive function.

 

Relationships: The Foundation of Language, Literacy and Learning

The quality of the relationships that young children form with the adults in their lives affects all aspects of a child’s development (intellectual, social, emotional, physical) and lays the foundation for critical developmental outcomes, including healthy mental development, conflict resolution, self-confidence, self-regulation and motivation to learn. A major ingredient in this developmental process is the serve and return relationship be­tween infants and their parents and other caregivers. With serve and return:

  • Adults initiate shared language transactions with their babies, at first. Later, the babies actually seek interaction through babbling, facial expressions and gestures, and the adults respond by vocalizing and gesturing back at the child.
  • Neural connections are built and strengthened to support the development of communication and social skills. In the absence of such responses — or if the responses are unreliable, inappropriate or insufficient — the brain’s architecture does not form as expected, leading to possible disparities in learning and behavior.

It is through their repeated, responsive, language-rich interactions with their babies that parents have a lasting impact on their baby’s brain development. This early exposure to language-rich interactions forms the basis of Language Nutrition

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Talk With Me Baby is made possible by a grant from the United Way of Atlanta and is a collaborative effort among organizations.