Discusion of NurtureShock, Chapter 10 "Why Hannah Talks and Alyssa Doesn't"

Today's the last week!

We've been talking about NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman allsummer. One chapter every Friday. Go back and read all the previous discussions, and add to them. The first week we talked about Chapter 1 about praise. The second week we talked about Chapter 2 about sleep. The third week we talked about talking about race with your kids. The fourth week we talked about why kids lie and how we're inadvertently promoting that. The fifth week we talked about intelligence testing for preschoolers for school placement purposes. The sixth week we talked about how having siblings socializes children. The seventh week we talked about why teens lie to their parents and engage in risky behavior. The eighth week we talked about how to teach kids self-control. Last week we talked about what makes kids act violently. This week we're talking about language acquisition and development in infants and children.

This chapter, entitled "Why Hannah Talks and Alyssa Doesn't," got back to the research and synthesis that made me love this book from the first few chapters. They start with the results of study showing that babies who watched more of the specialty infant videos (like Baby Einstein) were delayed in language acquisition compared to babies of the same age/socioeconomic group/etc. who didn't watch those videos. Yikes. Not at all what we've been sold about those videos.

They followed that up with:

  • The reason the videos didn't teach language was that there was no matching of voices with faces. A big part of babies learning speech is watching the mouths move as they hear the sounds, and that didn't happen in BE videos.
  • The idea of exposing babies to other languages early to keep their brains primed for sounds not contained in English turned out a) only to work with live people speaking other languages, not on video, and b) to impede their solid learning of English.
  • While hearing many words throughout the day increases language acquisition, more important than the number of words heard was how often and well the parent responded to the child's moves. Kids who were responded to more often and more consistently ("Hannah" in the chapter title) babbled more, understood more words, and developed language more rapidly than those who were not responded to as frequently ("Alyssa").
  • There's kind of an art to "object labeling" (teaching babies words) that isn't hard to figure out, but parents who do it well have kids who acquire vocabulary much faster than parents who do it poorly.
  • Wow. A whole section of the kind of stuff that made me zone out back in Psych 102 in college (sorry, Professor Gonzalez) about specific structures that scaffold vocab development, and "shape training," and I really really really hope I did the best I could have at that stuff with both my kids even though I didn't know what I was doing.
  • An interesting ending to the chapter in which they tie it all up by saying research is pretty much debunking Noam Chomsky's theory of an underlying grammar sense that kids are just born with. Some research with identical and fraternal twins shows that only about 25% of language acquisition is natural variance in kids and the rest is how they're taught the language by the people around them.

What a fascinating chapter. Even though I kind of zone out at the details of all the different kinds of structures and phonemic detail, the issue of language acquisition is fascinating to me. I think about the way my own kids developed language and, am not surprised that my older one acquired words much earlier and more rapidly than my younger one did--I was super-responsive to the older one, but had to divide my attention in two by the time the second one came along. Once the second one started speaking, though, he acquired tons of vocabulary as a result of being around more other talking humans constantly who responded to him.

It also now makes sense to me why the "Signing Time" DVDs teach sign language when Baby Einstein doesn't teach spoken language: The Signing Time DVDs show the "speaker" saying the words (so you can see the face) and also making the sign at the same time, instead of disconnecting the two of them.

It also explains why I acquired soooo much more Spanish so quickly when I lived in Mexico City and committed to watching the same hour-long telenovela all 5 days of the week. Telenovelas are big on close-ups of people's faces while they're talking, and repeated speech. (For an explanation of the cultural significance for the whole family of telenovelas in Mexican and Mexican-American cultura, check out my friend Juan's sweet piece on watching them with his dad.) Six years of studying the subjunctive mode didn't do much, but by the time I watched the entire run of "Lazos de Amor" I was using the subjunctive without even thinking about it.

This chapter also made me recommit to my kids' language acquisition even now. My older one's read all the Percy Jackson books, and told me I should read them, so I've been working my way through (book 3 really dragged for me, but 4 is back to being exciting). It's hitting me after reading this chapter that talking to him about all the Greek mythology and cool words he's acquiring is going to help him more than just reading them would.

And I'm also going to keep going with reading the bedtime book to my 5-year-old that's just almost past his reach. I'd been feeling bad that we kept stopping to talk about why people said things and what some words meant, but now I'm thinking that may be good, and better than if he understood everything without my help, because it's about the interaction instead of fluid storytelling.

What did you take from this chapter? Did it make you think about your own or your kids' process of acquiring language?