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Boosting Your Child's Learning: The 30 Million Word Initiative

Updated: Dec 22, 2021

Do you think you could teach your child a 30 million words in 3 years? A child's brain is extremely malleable when it is young. In the long term, this could help them not only learn language better, but also improve their intellect and critical thinking!

Ram and Shyam are three-year-olds from Bengaluru. The parents of the two kids met each other at a get together for doctors and were chatting about how quickly their children seemed to be growing. Ram’s mother said that Ram wants to become an astronaut. She said that he keeps explaining to them about galaxies far away and could identify the planets on a clear night sky. Upon seeing Ram, Shyam’s parents were surprised about how much Ram was able to talk, and how intelligent he seemed. They wondered what made Ram different from Shyam.

What do you think made the difference?

It could not have been the age; they are both almost the same age!

Could it have been that maybe Ram was inherently just more intelligent? Maybe he was born in an intellectually superior family? Perhaps.

A more plausible reason could be that Ram was exposed to a lot more information as a kid than Shyam.

In 1995, Hart and Risley reported that children from higher socio-economic backgrounds had a higher vocabulary by 30 million words than children from lower socio-economic background.

Ram and Shyam however come from similar socio-economic backgrounds considering both their parents are in the same line of profession. So, what could be causing this contrast?

Further studies that have explored this hypothesis have now found that the key to overall development of the child is exposing them to a language rich environment at an early age.

What is language rich environment?

You can create a language rich environment by talking to your child a lot from a very early age. Studies suggest that bombarding the child with a lot of information at an early age helps in development of superior intellect and language.

How early an age is early?

Before the age of 3 years, the brain takes in a lot of information. 80-85% of the brain development occurs by the age of 3 years. At the age of 3, the brain consists of a 100 billion neurons, and is capable of forming 700-1000 new connections every day! With every new information the child learns, a new connection in the brain is formed. So, the more you talk to your child, the more the child learns. Forming newer and stronger brain connections helps the child not only learn language easily but also helps in development of superior mathematical skills, literary and academic skills, spatial skills, and emotional and behavioral maturity.

So, children learn faster and retain information for longer periods of time when they learn at an early age. When the child is not exposed to language rich environments, fewer neural connections are made. The 100 billion neurons present in the child’s brain stand like individual telephone poles with little/no connections between them. This renders them pointless. Through learning, neural connections are made stronger and helps in building the brain to develop several skills. Research shows that children who grew up in language rich environments have twice as much as vocabulary than children who grew up in poor language environments.

What happens if the child is exposed later in life?

After 3 years of age, the nervous system does a process similar to pruning. Imagine you have a rose garden in your house. How would you maintain it? You would not like it to grow too much, would you? So, you keep trimming it, and weeding out the unnecessary plants in your garden. Similar process occurs in the brain too. Too many neural connections could overload the brain. In order to avoid that, the brain begins to sever the neural connections that are not used much (weaker connections), assuming that they’re unwanted. So, even though the child is given a lot of information, the child will not be able to pick up and retain all that information effectively. Hence, it is extremely important to start exposing your child to meaningful and quality language at an early age.

30 million words seem a lot. How do I expose my child to it?

In order to bridge the gap of 30 million words, start talking to your child at an early age. Parents are the primary architects of the child’s future. You can start talking to your child about everything. Talk to them about what you are doing, explain to them why you are folding clothes. If you have to water the plants, take your child along with you. Tell them, “Look at those plants! They look so green.”

“What color are those roses?”

“Oh, how beautiful those lilies are!”

“Look at that tiny little bud that’s growing out of the Mogra plant!”

Read to your child. Use picture books and describe those pictures in as much detail as possible.

Engage your child in a conversation. Ask them how their day went, and what they did while you were away for work. It is okay if they give one-word answers such as “puzzles” or “play”. You can expand that and ask them, “oh did you do the puzzles? What puzzles did you do?”. If they don’t know how to answer that, give them options. “Was it the one with Cinderella’s picture on it or the three little pigs?”. You can also point to them while you are asking.

Before you know it, you will have spoken more than 30 million words with your child!

Dr. Dana Suskind, along with Dr. John List started the Thirty Million Words Initiative with the vision of bridging this learning gap. She recommends the use of 3Ts to give your child rich language exposure.

Dr. Dana Suskind - Author of Thirty Million Words: Building a Child's Brain

Tune in. This is the first step. You need to be tuned in to what your child is focused on for language to stick. If they’re distracted by a TV show, they aren’t really listening to you.

Talk more. Once you have tuned in, start talking about what you’re doing. Start narrating. What do you say to a 3-month-old? You can talk about the laundry you’re doing, whatever you’re cooking, what’s happening in the here and now or in the future or the past. And use rich words to go along with it.

Take turns. It’s hard to think of babies as a conversation partner; before they have words, it feels foreign. But from day one — or almost from day one — they’re practicing having a conversation with gestures, grimaces, babbles. You can respond and keep it going. That’s the crux of a rich language environment.

What if my child cannot hear? How do I teach my child then?

What your child hears is what they learn. So, making sure your child hears you and listens to what you are saying is important. Following the JCIH protocol and conducting Universal Newborn Hearing Screening programs ensures early identification of hearing loss in children. If a child is diagnosed to have hearing loss at an early age, they can be fitted with hearing aids or cochlear implants, and AVT can be provided. This way, even children with hearing loss don't lose out on those 30 million words!

In essence, keep talking to your child even if you feel that the child cannot understand or respond. It is okay if the child only says gaaaga goooogoo… Spending quality time with your child ensures a better future for them. Make sure there isn’t a 30-million-word gap later in your child’s life.

A rich language exposure ensures a rich future!


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