Harvard study analyses what babies hear and say across the world
The Sector > Research > Harvard study analyses what babies hear and say across the world

Harvard study analyses what babies hear and say across the world

by Freya Lucas

December 19, 2023

A new study from Harvard University has explored the ways in which infants and toddlers learn language from the world around them, finding that the main predictors of language development are age, clinical factors such as prematurity or dyslexia, and how much speech children receive from the world around them.


Of all factors, talk from caring adults stood out as the key contributor to early childhood speech, and that, in contrast to previous research, no effects were found related to gender, multilingualism, or socioeconomics. 


The work is being led by Associate Professor Elika Bergelson, a developmental psychologist who specifically strives to parse the various theories that account for the onset and eventual mastery of language comprehension and production.


Her latest paper, published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, represents a more global approach to developing and testing such theories. 


Written with Alejandrina Cristia at the École normale supérieure, PSL University and 11 others, the paper is based on an extremely large sample of two- to 48-month olds. Day-long audio recordings captured the babbling and baby talk of 1,001 children representing 12 countries and 43 languages. Analysis was completed with the help of machine learning. 


The study was able to simultaneously consider many variables that are usually looked at separately while also considering how big their effects were. 


“Notably, it wasn’t just child factors like age or risk for language delay that mattered, but a key environmental factor too: how much speech children heard from adults,” Associate Professor Bergelson said. “For every 100 adult vocalisations children heard per hour, they produced 27 more vocalisations themselves, and this effect grew with age.”


The work also touches on well-worn critiques of low-income parents and caregivers. 


“There’s been much debate and discussion in the literature in recent years about how socioeconomic status does or doesn’t link to language input and language output,” the Associate Professor noted. 


“We looked in many, many, many different ways … In no form did we ever find evidence that moms with more education had kids who produced more speech in these tens of thousands of hours of recordings from daily life.”


Financial support for the study was provided by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, among others.


Access the paper in full here. 

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