Thursday, January 24, 2008

Bring on the Babbling

(Note: Introvert Girl--me--is going to attempt posting on the Choco-Bang every Thursday. Hurrah for New Year's resolutions!)

Introvert Girl is not a talker. But you probably guessed that. Being an introvert, of course, I can thrive on a really meaningful conversation with one or two people whose opinions and ideas fire my imagination. For a couple of hours. Once a week. But I don't like being on the phone (really don't like it). I don't like frequent social gatherings. I don't like having guests in my house who can't entertain themselves. I usually need a day to myself to recover from a party, and a solid week to myself to recover from houseguests.

So what could possibly turn I'Girl into a babbly, chatty, talking idiot? If you know that I've recently had a baby, you know the answer.

It's not that his gummy, gorgeous smile prompts me to go "coochy-coo" at him on a whim. Nope, it's worse. It's a book.

When I told her I was pregnant, my sister presented me with What's Going on in There? which is a book about baby brain development written by a neurobiologist. And it's good, really good -- interesting and educational and persuasive. I have some issues with the research the author quotes, which involves horrible behavior toward rats, monkeys, and orphaned and abused children, but that's a very small part of the book.

A very large part is given over to the development of language in babies. And I've discovered, to my sorrow, that talking constantly to a baby (not just around the baby or near the baby) during its first couple years lays a a foundation for complex language development that can never be made up in later life. Research has shown that, no matter what your economic class or social background, the more you talk to a baby, the better its brain develops. The effects of early language exposure last well into elementary school, and, if maintained through childhood years, throughout a kid's learning life.

You've got to talk, talk, talk. And it's hard. For someone who revels in silence and who can go whole happy days not saying a word to anyone, it's a massive shift in habit. (I usually use up my chatting energy by doing filial duty on the phone. I thought I could rack up talk credits while expressively directing my words at him while I was on the phone, but somehow he knows the difference and doesn't engage.) My only incentive is the overwhelming evidence that my constant chatter is really, really important to this fourteen-pounder's little brain.

What's Going on in There? has been a true mind-opener for me. But as I try to remember to tell my son what I'm doing as I'm trying to make myself lunch, or spend an hour exchanging babble with him in his room, I kind of wish, secretly, that I hadn't read it. Ignorance is indeed bliss.


John Cowan said...

Alas, you can find "overwhelming evidence" in all directions: that talking to babies is irrelevant (in plenty of cultures, kids are never spoken to by anybody until they are playing with their peers, but they grow up with no problems around language use), that baby-talk ("coochy-coo") is essential, that baby-talk is irrelevant, that baby-talk is harmful (you should always talk to your baby as if s/he were an adult).

The fact is, kids grow up as kids no matter what we do or don't do with them, severe neglect aside. So do what works for you. If you have trouble talking with people (and I am pretty introverted but have no trouble with one-on-one conversations), consider reading aloud to the kid instead. Can't hurt, might help.

Introvert Girl said...

John, why are you always bursting my bubbles? Here I go, constructing this happy little argument, entranced with the flow of my own words, and you come along with a light breeze and point out my shaky house of straws :-)

This particular research is based partly on following forty different Kansas City families and their kids every month for the first few years of life. The researchers chose across economic and social divides. And they found that nothing influenced language development more than just the sheer quantity of parents' talking to their kids. Those kids had faster-growing vocabularies, scored higher on IQ tests (not that that's an great indicator, I know). They also found that these kids were better listeners later, too.

The author of the book points out that this research bursts the "myth of the educated parent." Kids with professional parents tend to get talked to more, because the parents are aware of the benefits and have the time, but any parent can do it, no matter how educated, or not.

The book I'm referencing isn't a "how to make your baby smarter" book. It's simply a scientific look at how the brain develops, various synapses form, how taste and hearing and language all start to work in the first few months, and then years, of life. Of course, it's never going to be exhaustive, and there's a lot we don't know. But mostly it reinforces a lot of "mother's instinct" that people have known since they've been having kids.

goofy said...

I'd be surprised if this was true. It would mean that in cultures where kids were not talked to, those kids would have less developed language use. But it seems that however kids are treated, they grow up with no language problems, as John says.

goofy said...
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Karen M said...

Talking is good... but you could also try just thinking out loud. That's not the same thing as talking on the phone to someone else, and your baby will know it.

And... there's also some good research on the benefits of teaching babies sign language, and you might find you like that. Apparently, babies like it, because they can express themselves sooner (i.e., communicate before they have the physical ability to make intelligible language sounds), and so suffer less frustration. I suspect that especially smart babies (like yours) would be the most appreciative of parents making such an effort.

One of the faculty I work for had a baby just over a year ago, and was telling me recently how much her youngest (of three) prefers her over the nanny, which doesn't always happen. She's convinced that it's because she was the first one to realize how smart she was, and in fact, says that the youngest one is also the smartest of the three. And so she knew her mother "got her." And at such a young age, too. Babies get a lot of short shrift, IMHO. They are way smarter than most people know.

Introvert Girl said...

Babies are smart. It's amazing to watch their little cognitions develop.

Children who aren't spoken to at all (including being spoken around) definitely grow up with language problems. They've found this, for example, with kids whose parents didn't realize they were deaf, and abused children who were isolated. Language development in the first couple years is crucial.

But of course that doesn't mean that failing to make extra talking effort is going to hinder a kid's ability to talk. Humans are wired to talk. If they hear speech around them, they can hardly help getting going themselves.

But what I'm talking about is research involving extra talking -- in general, the more talking you direct to a baby, the better their language and cognitive functions will develop.

I know this sounds all harebrained and BS-ish modern parent theory. But trust me, I'm not one of those people who's going to be sending my kid to enrichment classes and testing him with flash cards and forcing all sorts of specially developed cognitive-development toys on him. Nope, he's going to grow up running bare-bummed around the yard panging on pans, bouncing a pantyhose ball (made from torn tights, for those who don't know -- wonderfully soft and bouncy), and reading whatever's lying around, just like I did.

But maybe it's an indication of how much I love words and reading and learning foreign languages that doing something seemingly passive to help his language develop as well as possible seems awfully important. Of course, he'll learn to talk (and talk back) and be a perfectly intelligent little bugger all on his own. But if I can give him a little extra -- like the way I hang onto breastfeeding him for so long because of the health benefits -- why wouldn't I? Even if it means I have to talk out loud when I don't always feel like it.

Karen M said...

" the way I hang onto breastfeeding him for so long because of the health benefits -- why wouldn't I? Even if it means I have to talk out loud when I don't always feel like it."

I completely agree. Why wouldn't you? It doesn't sound hare-brained at all.

Besides, it certainly won't be the last time that having a child pushes you past your comfort zone. ;~)

Introvert Girl said...

Thanks for the preview warning, Karen! Now I'm gearing up to prepare for a brood of extroverts ...

And to think, the reason I thought it would be fun to have lots of kids was that they would be insulation against having to talk to boring people!

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