Researchers looked at 12-month-olds’ vocalisations, gestures and gazes, and at how caregivers responded
Anna Ploszajski – The Guardian
The best predictor of vocabulary was when infants used vocalisations while looking at their caregiver’s face. Photograph: Jamie Grill/Getty/Tetra images RF
Babies who frequently communicate with their caregivers using eye contact and vocalisations at the age of one are more likely to develop greater language skills by the time they reach two, according to new research.
Scientists say the findings should encourage parents to pay close attention to babies’ attempts to communicate before they can use words, and to respond to them. In the study, researchers looked at 11- and 12-month-old babies’ vocalisations, gestures and gaze behaviours, and at how their caregivers responded to them. “These have never been looked at together in the same analysis before,” said Dr Ed Donnellan, from the University of Sheffield, the lead author on the study.
To measure the interactions, the researchers videoed infants and caregivers at home, and asked them to play as usual. “We took those recordings back to the university and very meticulously coded what was happening. We looked out for every time the infant vocalised, or gestured, and we coded all the caregivers’ responses,” said Prof Michelle McGillion of the University of Warwick, a co-author of the work published in the journal Developmental Science and presented at the British Science festival.
The caregivers later filled out a questionnaire about whether their children could say certain words referring to animals, daily routines and food.
The scientists then used statistical models to find that the best predictor of vocabulary at 24 months was when infants were seen to use vocalisations while looking at their caregiver’s face when they were about a year old. The benefits were even greater when these interactions were followed by responses from the caregiver.
The statistics showed that at 19 months, children had an average of about 100 words. Those who exhibited the beneficial interactive behaviour earlier in life were seen to have an average of about 30 extra words.
“What this tells us is that babies are trying to communicate before they have arrived at their first words. When they’re doing this, they are giving caregivers an opportunity to communicate back, and when the caregivers do that, that’s when word learning seems to be improved,” said Donnellan.
“The message of this paper is that it’s a joint effort; noticing what your child is attending to and talking to them about it will support their language development,” said McGillion. “The joy of this message is that that can happen in any context … across any part of your day. It’s not something that requires special equipment or even lots of time. It can happen when you’re doing the laundry, for example – when you’re taking out the socks, you can talk about socks … in the park, in the car, at mealtimes, at bathtimes. This finding can be used in any context.”
McGillion hopes this work might lead to further studies across more age ranges: “This is a developmental snapshot in the first year of life, but children are constantly growing and changing and so are their behaviours. [It would be interesting to] look at these sorts of behaviours again as children progress through the second year of life to see what’s happening there.”