The Science behind Language Nutrition

Key Points

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


  • Early language exposure sets the foundation for cognitive ability, literacy, and school readiness and is the single strongest predictor of third grade reading proficiency. 

  • Third grade marks a time when students shift from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”  Reading proficiently by the end of third grade is an important indicator of later academic achievement, including the likelihood of graduating high school and health and economic outcomes.

  • Both the quality and quantity of words a baby hears 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.

  • Not every child is exposed to a rich language environment. Children from low-income families hear approximately 600 words every hour, 1,400 fewer than children in higher-income families. This disparity, which eventually becomes a “30 million word gap,” leads to dramatic differences in vocabularies of 18 month old children, which increase significantly between 18 months and 24 months.


  • 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.

  • 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. Extensive research highlights the benefits that speaking more than one language has in many areas of development, including cognitive function.

  • Research shows that when families believe they can influence their child’s outcomes, the quality of their interactions with their children increases.


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