The Grapevine

Children's Brains Benefit From Proper Conversations With Adults

Back-and-forth dialogue with adults from an early age might help promote language skills in children, even regardless of factors like parental income and education.

In a new study, these child-adult conversations were linked to a possible influence in brain structure where connections were strengthened between two developing regions critical for language.

The paper titled "Language Exposure Relates to Structural Neural Connectivity in Childhood" was published in the Journal of Neuroscience on Aug. 13.

The team comprised of researchers from Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, participants of the study included 40 children who were aged 4 to 6.

The children and their parents were recorded over a period of two days. This helped capture the number of different words heard by the children, the number of words they used while speaking, and the number of turns they took during back-and-forth conversations with their parents.

Brain scans later revealed stronger connections in children who took more turns during the back-and-forth conversations. The observed brain region was the one responsible for comprehension and speech. These children also had higher scores on verbal skills tests.

"Our findings show that the information highways between the language regions of the brain were stronger in children who took turns talking with their parents, and the greater connectivity held true independent of socioeconomic status," said lead author Dr. Rachel Romeo, a postdoctoral research fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Often, educational efforts have focused on bridging something referred to as the "word gap," which described a major gap between the number of words children of different socioeconomic backgrounds were exposed to. 

The term comes from an influential study titled "Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children," which was published in the 1990s.

It was found school-age children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds were exposed to nearly 30 million more words than children of the same age who grew up in lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

More recent studies, however, have been unable to replicate the findings. Critics of the study have also expressed skepticism over its sample size and methodology, suggesting the figure of 30 million may be exaggerated.

Romeo also believed the idea of bridging a word gap may be too simplistic of an approach to improve language development in children. The latest findings should encourage discussions about the quality of language they are exposed and not just the quantity, she said.

"This was an early-stage study to determine whether these relationships [between conversational speech and structure of the brain] exist and now that we know they do, we will move to an intervention study where we will bring children and parents in and target those brain regions," she said.