Talking to children matters: early language experience strengthens processing and builds vocabulary

Psychol Sci. 2013 Nov 1;24(11):2143-52. doi: 10.1177/0956797613488145. Epub 2013 Sep 10.


Infants differ substantially in their rates of language growth, and slow growth predicts later academic difficulties. In this study, we explored how the amount of speech directed to infants in Spanish-speaking families low in socioeconomic status influenced the development of children's skill in real-time language processing and vocabulary learning. All-day recordings of parent-infant interactions at home revealed striking variability among families in how much speech caregivers addressed to their child. Infants who experienced more child-directed speech became more efficient in processing familiar words in real time and had larger expressive vocabularies by the age of 24 months, although speech simply overheard by the child was unrelated to vocabulary outcomes. Mediation analyses showed that the effect of child-directed speech on expressive vocabulary was explained by infants' language-processing efficiency, which suggests that richer language experience strengthens processing skills that facilitate language growth.

Keywords: cognitive processes; environmental effects; individual differences; language development; poverty.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Hispanic or Latino / ethnology
  • Humans
  • Individuality
  • Infant
  • Language Development*
  • Male
  • Parent-Child Relations
  • Poverty / psychology
  • Social Class
  • Speech Perception / physiology*
  • Vocabulary*