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.
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.
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.
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.
Your baby’s brain grows over time. Brain growth starts during pregnancy and continues into adulthood, with the fastest growth happening during the first three years of life. Brain growth is measured by the number of cells and the amount of connections that are between the cells. We can think of those connections as the ‘wiring’ that allows the cells to talk to one another. This wiring plays a really important role in how your baby grows and learns, both today and later in life.
Is there anything you can do to help the wiring in your baby’s brain get stronger and healthier? In a word, YES! And the best part is: it doesn’t take special equipment, fancy toys or complicated treatments and everyone can help. Talk with your baby early and often. The words she hears from you and the rest of the people around her help her brain make new connections and make those connections stronger.
And the stronger the wiring in her brain becomes in the first three years of life, the more ready her brain will be to learn all the wonderful things she is going learn and do later in life. So shower her with lots of loving words. The wiring in her brain gets stronger and healthier every time you do.
National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2007). The timing and quality of early experiences combine to shape brain architecture: Working paper no.5. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu
National Research Council & Institute of Medicine. (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: the science of early childhood development (J. P. Shonkoff & D. A. Phillips Eds.). Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.
Language Nutrition™ is Effective in Any Language
More and more children in Georgia come from homes where a language other than English is spoken. The term “dual language learner” (DLL) is used to refer to children who are developing in their home language and in English, and highlights their linguistic capacity in more than one language.
Dual language learners:
Are the most rapidly growing population in Georgia schools – growing at a rate that is twice as fast as the general school population.
- Comprise close to 20 percent of Georgia’s 0-8 year-olds.
- Represent a significant diversity in cultures and languages, with more than 80 percent of Georgia DLLs speaking Spanish at home.
Benefits of Dual Language Learners
Just as Georgia’s demographics are changing, the research landscape is changing, as well. These changes compel educators, policy-makers and clinicians to rethink many existing beliefs about how children develop when exposed to more than one language and how best to support their learning and language development. Recent findings include:
- Infants have the innate capacity to acquire two languages and can easily separate the sounds of each language.
- There is no scientific evidence indicating that learning two languages during the early childhood years overwhelms, confuses or significantly delays a child’s acquisition of English.
- Young bilingual children achieve critical milestones, like babbling and onset of first words, within the same timeframe as typically developing monolingual children.
- Home language provides a foundation for learning English – many skills developed in the first language transfers to the second.
- An extensive body of research highlights the many benefits that speaking more than one language has in many areas of development, including cognitive.
Why it's important for parents to use their home language
Language Nutrition is about rich exchanges between caregivers and babies. These exchanges are richest when they happen in the language the child first hears and the language the parent or caregiver is most comfortable speaking – for many Georgia families, this is not English.
- If limited English is used, parents or caregivers might use simple phrases and commands (e.g., “sit down” or “stop”) or grammatically incorrect phrases (“we no go store”). In these cases, the amount of language the child hears is significantly reduced, and the vocabulary severely restricted.
- By reinforcing the primacy of the home language, children will be exposed to more complex ideas, abstract thoughts and expanded vocabulary – crucial for children to develop important cognitive and language skills.
- Many families of DLLs mistakenly believe that speaking only English to their children will facilitate and/or accelerate the acquisition of English. TWMB coaches should make every effort to dispel concerns parents might have, promote the parents’ use of their home language (s) and highlight the benefits of bilingualism.
Therefore, TWMB encourages families to help their children maintain the home language while they learn English at the same time. Having daily conversations, singing, telling stories, rhyming and reading to children in the home language are all language nutrition practices and lay the foundation for later learning English.
Not every child is exposed to a rich language environment.
Children from low-income families hear approximately 600 words every hour, whereas children from higher-income families hear approximately 2,000 words an hour. This 30 million word gap leads to dramatic differences in vocabularies of 18 month old children, which increase significantly between 18 months and 24 months.
- Children from impoverished environments may experience pronounced disparities in cognition, academic performance, IQ and school readiness early on that persist throughout the child’s lifetime. This inequality may be attributable to a large disparity in children’s early-language environments.
- Children from low-income families hear approximately 600 words every hour, whereas children from higher-income families hear 2,000 words an hour. Throughout the course of three years, this accumulates into a 30 million word gap between low income children and children from higher-income families. This 30 million word gap contributes to the stark disparities in academic performance and is influenced by a generational lack of access to education and language nutrition.
- Differences in early language environments lead to dramatic differences in vocabularies of 18 month-old children, which increase significantly between 18 months and 24 months.
- Children who have heard fewer words since birth, are likely to know fewer words and have a less diverse vocabulary by age three.
- Children who are ill-prepared to start school are often unable to catch up, and thus, the achievement gap widens. Educational researcher Gloria Landson-Billings suggests that the achievement gap leads to an “educational debt” (analogous to the concept of a “national debt”), at the core of which is a generational lack of access to quality education. This “educational debt” becomes a cyclical process that brings socioeconomic co-morbidities such as illiteracy, under- or unemployment, health and behavioral issues and poverty.
Bridging the Word Gap
The relationship between socioeconomic status and the word gap may be mediated by parents’ knowledge of child development. Knowledge about child development and how to support it seems to predict the frequency and quality of a parent’s communication with her child more than income or level of parent education. Therefore, efforts must be made to bridge the 30 million word gap, narrow the achievement gap and foster educational success for all children, regardless of the family’s socioeconomic status. TWMB aims to help build that bridge.
Effects of Early Language Exposure on Vocabulary and Literacy
Language is our most common means of interacting with others and enables us to share thoughts and communicate. Language is the vehicle by which families transmit culture from generation to generation. Culture and language are intimately intertwined, and language contains embedded cultural concepts that influence the way children learn about their world.
Language is at the core of everything a child does and learns in school.
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.
Communication takes many forms, including sounds, signs, gestures, facial expressions, eye contact and, most importantly, words.
- Babies’ brains serve as one-of-a-kind word processors that analyze words spoken by family members and caregivers and store information for use later. The brain “word processor” records information such as the beats and sounds within words, how strings of words fit together, how word sequence and intonation affect meaning and how words can be categorized by meaning. These language skills form the foundation and internal dictionary, or lexicon, that makes learning to read possible.
- “Conversational duets” (i.e. repeated serve and return interactions between caregivers and young children) are the most critical component of the language environment. “Toddlers who engage in more ‘conversational duets’ with their caretakers fare better in language measures down the road, regardless of their families’ income level.”
A child’s vocabulary at the age of three is a key predictor of school readiness at kindergarten and third grade reading comprehension, which is a powerful predictor of subsequent academic success.
Strong Vocabulary Helps Build Social Emotional Skills
The link between language development and social emotional skills is apparent from infancy through adulthood. Strong language skills allow us to label our emotions and communicate our emotions to others. When children have strong communication skills, they are more confident, demonstrate stronger literacy skills and exhibit fewer behavioral problems.
Because language development has such a profound impact on social emotional development, it is essential for adults to nourish children with the words needed to express themselves and build positive relationships with others. Make every baby your conversational partner to give them the language skills they need to interact with others, manage their emotions, learn and excel.
Eisenberg, N., Sadovsky, A., & Spinrad, T. L. (2005). Associations of emotion-related regulation with language skills, emotion knowledge, and academic outcomes. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, (109), 109–118.
Cross, M. (2011). Children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties and communication problems: There is always a reason (2nd ed.). London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingley Publishers.
Third grade reading proficiency is a powerful indicator for future academic success, high school graduation, and life stability.
Third grade reading is a critical milestone
The ability to read by the end of third grade is an important indicator of later academic success as well as economic success. Third grade marks a time when children shift from learning to read to reading to learn.
However, children who cannot read proficiently cannot make this shift, which has serious implications for future learning as nearly half of the printed fourth grade curriculum in the US is incomprehensible to children who cannot read at grade level. As a result, these children fall even further behind in school than children who can read.
Nearly 2/3 of kids can’t read proficiently by the end of 3rd grade-this is a crisis.
Third grade reading proficiency is a powerful indicator for future academic success, high school graduation, and life stability.
Reading proficiently by the end of third grade is the highest predictor of high school graduation.
According to a longitudinal study commissioned by The Annie E. Casey Foundation, children who can’t read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out before graduating high school. If the child also lives in poverty, he or she is six times more likely to drop out.
Not graduating from high school has life-long consequences.
Individuals who do not complete high school are significantly more likely than high school graduates to become incarcerated, become teen parents, be subjected to violence as either an aggressor or a victim, be unemployed, and be recipients of Medicaid and welfare.
Life expectancy of people who do not have a high school degree compared to those who have a bachelors degree differs by approximately 11 years.
Individuals who graduate from high school are healthier, too.
To set our nation’s children on a path to economic success and life-long health, it is critical for parents to talk with their children to help them achieve the milestones of third grade literacy and high school graduation.
Get Georgia Reading: Georgia’s Campaign for Grade Level Reading
National Campaign for Grade Level Reading
An Epidemic of Illiteracy
The children of Georgia – and the nation – are in the grips of an epidemic of illiteracy. In Georgia alone, only 34 percent of school children are proficient readers. Ending this epidemic is the No. 1 education priority of Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and dozens of other public and private organizations throughout the state. This collaborative effort has united foundations, nonprofit partners, business leaders, government agencies and communities to secure a strong foundation for all children, so they may succeed in school, graduate from high school and be equipped with the skills to achieve their dreams, regardless of where their dreams take them. These leaders have set the expectation that, by the year 2020, every child from birth to age eight will be on a path to read proficiently by the end of third grade – an important predictor of whether a child will ultimately graduate from high school.
The Path to Third Grade Reading
By the year 2020, every child from birth to age eight will be on a path to read proficiently by the end of third grade. The 2020 commitment to Georgia’s children can only be met by recognizing that young children’s language and literacy development begins well before their arrival in kindergarten and depends on the verbal interactions that caregivers and families have with their children. This early exposure to language and communication prepares a child’s brain for reading proficiency and, ultimately, for success in school and in life. Research indicates that many families do not engage in such robust language transactions with their child—for a variety of reasons. Families may not know the importance of talking with their baby to enhance brain development, or their own lack of education may hinder their efforts.
When a generation has been deprived of a quality education, families are at critical risk for being caught in a cycle of poverty and educational disparity.
The Need for Language Nutrition Starts at Birth
Brenda Fitzgerald, M.D., Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health and State Health Officer, has identified the lack of access to language among Georgia’s young children as a public health imperative. Research points to significant associations between formal educational attainment and individual health outcomes and risks such as mortality, smoking, drug abuse, accidents and development of chronic disease. The vast majority of these reports conclude that the higher the level of education attained, the more likely individuals are to be healthier and live longer and that “education has an enduring, consistent and growing effect on health.”
- High school graduation and health are inextricably linked, even when taking other socioeconomic factors into account.
- High school graduates have a higher probability of practicing health-promoting behaviors such as exercise, medical treatments adherence, annual checkups and recommended screenings.
- High school graduates report incomes 75-100 percent higher than those who do not graduate.
- Individuals who do not complete high school are significantly more likely than high school graduates to be incarcerated, become teen parents, be involved in violence as either an aggressor or a victim, be unemployed and be recipients of Medicaid and benefits through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program.