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The Power of Back-and-forth Conversational Turns

Study finds engaging young children in conversations is more beneficial to their language-related brain function and language skills than just speaking to them.

Children's language exposure in early years is critical to their later language development. The language quantity (e.g., number of words) and quality (e.g., sentence complexity) that young children hear are the foundation of later language skills, cognitive capabilities and social skills.

A landmark study in 1995 estimated that by age 3, children from higher social-economic backgrounds had heard 30 million more words than children from lower-SES backgrounds, and this “30-million-word gap” correlates with significant differences in tests of vocabulary, language development, and reading comprehension.

In a 2018 study, MIT cognitive scientists found that the back-and-forth conversational turns between an adult and a child is actually more critical to language development than the sheer language input. Using Language Environment Analysis (LENA) system and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers studied the language experience of 36 children between the ages of 4 and 6, and their brain function underlying language processing.

The researchers found that the number of conversational turns correlated with more activity in Broca’s area, which is a brain area involved in speech production and language processing, when the children listened to stories while inside an fMRI scanner. The number of conversational turns also correlated with the children’s scores on standardized tests of language skill, including vocabulary, grammar, and verbal reasoning.

This study shows that the quality of language experience (such as turn taking) is more important than quantity. The authors point out it's important to not just talk to your child, but talk with them.

“The really novel thing about our paper is that it provides the first evidence that family conversation at home is associated with brain development in children,” John Gabrieli, the senior author of the study, told MIT news. “It’s almost magical how parental conversation appears to influence the biological growth of the brain.”

The researchers think that conversational turns are important for language development because they provide increased opportunities for children to practice language and receive feedback from adults. Furthermore, this helps adults adapt their own speech to the optimal complexity to best support children’s language development.

The Hanen Center has compiled the many benefits of engaging children in conversations.

Although the study is done with children ages 4 to 6, turn-taking interactions can be done with younger children. Parentese speech, or baby talk, is shown to benefit infants' later language development. The researchers told MIT news that they hope hope their findings will encourage parents to engage their young children in more conversation. Having conversations or turn-taking interactions with young children will have lasting benefits.

Below is a video by McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT that explains the major findings of the study.

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