Quality, Not Quantity.

Douglas Quenqua had an interesting piece in the Oct. 16 NY Times that I just got around to (thanks, Eric!), the burden of which is well summarized in the title: “Quality of Words, Not Quantity, Is Crucial to Language Skills, Study Finds”:

Now, a growing body of research is challenging the notion that merely exposing poor children to more language is enough to overcome the deficits they face. The quality of the communication between children and their parents and caregivers, the researchers say, is of much greater importance than the number of words a child hears.

A study presented on Thursday at a White House conference on “bridging the word gap” found that among 2-year-olds from low-income families, quality interactions involving words — the use of shared symbols (“Look, a dog!”); rituals (“Want a bottle after your bath?”); and conversational fluency (“Yes, that is a bus!”) — were a far better predictor of language skills at age 3 than any other factor, including the quantity of words a child heard.

“It’s not just about shoving words in,” said Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University and lead author of the study. “It’s about having these fluid conversations around shared rituals and objects, like pretending to have morning coffee together or using the banana as a phone. That is the stuff from which language is made.”

There is, of course, more about this study and another one published in April (“researchers who observed 11- and 14-month-old children in their homes found that the prevalence of one-on-one interactions and frequent use of parentese — the slow, high-pitched voice commonly used for talking to babies — were reliable predictors of language ability at age 2”) at the link.


  1. This makes sense, even for adult language learning. There seems to be a strain of thinking in language learning that advises large-scale exposure to the foreign language in order to make progress (‘Read lots! Watch lots of videos! Listen to lots of foreign-language broadcasts!’). But it seems to me that the quality of interactions is far more important than sheer quantity. Good interactions with people are worth far more than hundreds of subtitled videos.

  2. “This makes sense”

    Yes, I think for a couple of reasons. First, humans are social animals and social interaction is important to us. Second, this requires active language production which is important (maybe necessary) for language acquisition.

  3. This is so important. We have a generation of bright young thumb-texting men and women who have less and less an idea of how to converse with each other, never mind with their future children.

    Child development (including language development) should be taught by…everyone. Just take an hour and do it. Pass on what you read here.

  4. My inner statistician says that the cause-and-effect may be somewhat reversed there – that actually the babies who enjoy social verbalization, who love to call out the recognize objects and to point to objects they recognized from the spoken words, and who positively engage in response to grownups’ cooing – that these are the children who will develop better social skills in a year or two … but in the meantime they already have the still-undeveloped attitudes and skills with the speech which simply make it fun for the grownups to talk to them, and to engage verbally with them.

    Don’t you know that some toddlers are a pure pleasure to talk to? It may be an old evolved skill in the children’s competition for the scarce resources, too – to be able to elicit affection of the grownups. Responding to words in a social way is one such strategy to win appreciation and affection.

    Of course genes and overall intelligence may also play a role, being shared in parents and their children, and making the parents to be more intellectually engaged with their little ones on one hand, while simultaneously making the children develop better on the other hand. As in, the children of the parents who talk better would talk better themselves – not because the parents chose some specific reaching approach, but simply because both generations are stronger innately predisposed to using and appreciating words?

  5. Shelley – “We have a generation of bright young thumb-texting men and women who have less and less an idea of how to converse with each other, never mind with their future children. ”

    And your evidence for this ludicrous assertion is? (Clue – you don’t have any.)

  6. So is “language skills” here the same thing as “conversational skills”? Introverts, on the other hand, may be sitting in a corner by themselves, learning to read. People who are great talkers may be terrible readers. And vice versa.

  7. Dmitry: My inner statistician says that the cause-and-effect may be somewhat reversed there …

    I agree with your general assessment, but I think the notions of cause and effect are too impoverished to adequately model the process of learning to speak and understand. As a consequence, I think that reinterpreting causes as effects, and vice versa, provides little insight here. Thus cause-and-effect statistics are not much help.

    I am not suggesting that cause and effect are useless notions. Rather, I am suggesting the possibility that the (implicit) model could profitably be (explicitly) modelled in a different way. Unexamined metamodels lurk behind the traditional practice of using “speaking” and “understanding” as self-explanatory concepts.

    I myself find Luhmann’s “system theory” analysis of communication to be very useful in this connection. My reading has also directed my attention to Piaget, whom I want to read despite the familiar criticisms that have been brought against his work.


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