Why Hannah Talks and Alyssa Doesn’t Ⅰ- Woodmam

Despite scientists’ admonitions, parents still spend billions every year on gimmicks and videos, hoping to jump-start infants’ language skills. What’s the right way to accomplish this goal?

In November 2007, a media firestorm erupted.

The preeminent journal Pediatrics published a report out of the University of Washington: infants who watched so-called “baby videos” had a quantifiably smaller vocabulary than those who had not watched the videos. With sales of baby videos estimated to be as high as $4.8 billion annually, the industry went on red alert.

Robert A. Iger, Chief Executive Officer of Disney—which owns the Baby Einstein brand—took the unusual step of publicly disparaging the scholars’ work, describing their findings as “doubtful” and the study methodology as “poorly done.” He complained the university statement in support of the study was “reckless” and “totally irresponsible.”

Parents, many of whom had these DVDs on their shelves, were similarly disbelieving. One of the big reasons for their skepticism was an inexplicably wacky result within the study. According to the data, almost all other kinds of television and movies infants were exposed to—from Disney’s own The Little Mermaid to American Idol—were fine for kids. It was baby DVDs—and only baby DVDs—to watch out for. Iger described the findings as nothing less than “absurd.”

How could these DVDs, beloved by infants around the world, possibly be bad for them?

The report was actually a follow-up to an earlier study the researchers had done to examine if parents used the television as an electronic babysitter. Most academics had assumed that was true—parents were parking the kids in front of a video while they went to make a phone call or cook dinner—but no one had tried to find out if there was a basis to the hypothesis.

In that study, parents did confirm that some babysitting was going on, but the main reason infants were watching television—especially videos such as those in the Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby series—was because parents believed the programs would give their children a cognitive advantage.

“We had parents with kids in front of the TV for as many as twenty hours a week ‘for their brain development,’ ” recalled Dr. Andrew Meltzoff, one of the authors of both studies. “Parents told us that they couldn’t provide much for their children, and that troubled them, so they had saved up and bought the videos hoping that would make up for everything else. Then they had faithfully strapped their kids into place to watch for four to six hours a week. They said they thought that was the best thing they could do for their babies.”

Moved by parents’ dramatic efforts to shore up their children’s intellectual development, the scholars conducted the second study—in order to quantify the actual impact of such television exposure.

The research team called hundreds of families in Washington and Minnesota, asking parents to report the amount of television their children were watching, by each type of program. Then, they had the parents complete what’s known as the MacArthur Communicative Development Inventory. Quite simply, the CDI is a list of 89 common words infants may know, and, if they are old enough, say themselves. The words represent a range of vocabulary sophistication, from “cup” and “push” to “fast” and “radio.” The CDI is an internationally accepted measure of early language—translated versions of it are used around the world.

Analyzing the data, the scholars found a dose-response relationship, meaning the more the children watched, the worse their vocabulary. If infants watched the shows one hour per day, they knew 6 to 8 fewer of the 89 CDI words than infants who did not watch any baby DVDs. That might not sound like a big deficit, but consider that the average eleven-month-old boy recognizes only 16 of the CDI words in the first place. Understanding 6 fewer of the CDI words would drop him from the 50th percentile to the 35th.

The results couldn’t have been further from the statements made in the very first press release from Baby Einstein, in March 1997:

Studies show that if these neurons are not used, they may die. Through exposure to phonemes in seven languages, Baby Einstein contributes to increased brain capacity.

Baby Einstein creator Julie Aigner-Clark specifically credited one professor, Dr. Patricia Kuhl, as the inspiration for much of the video’s content. In an interview, Aigner-Clark explained, “After reading some of the research by Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington, I decided to make the auditory portion of the video multilingual, with mothers from seven different countries reciting nursery rhymes and counting in their native languages.”

Kuhl and other scholars had determined that, at birth, babies are sensitive to any language’s phonemes—unique sound combinations that make up a word. (Each language has about 40 phonemes, such as “kuh” or “ch.”) Once babies are around six to nine months old, they gradually lose that generalist sensitivity. Their brains become specialized, trained to recognize the phonemes of the language (or languages) they hear most. Kuhl describes this process as becoming “neurally committed” to a language. Commonly-used neural pathways in the brain strengthen, while unused pathways weaken.

Aigner-Clark’s hope was that her audio track would train children’s brains to recognize phonemes in a wide assortment of languages—essentially, preventing neural specialization. Hearing these languages early in life would allow them to learn multiple foreign languages later.

Back in 1997, Aigner-Clark’s product seemed to piggyback on Kuhl’s research. But that’s quite ironic, because in the years since, Patricia Kuhl’s ongoing findings have helped explain why baby DVDs don’t work.

First, in a longitudinal study, Kuhl showed that neural commitment to a primary language isn’t a bad thing. The more “committed” a baby’s brain is, at nine months old, the more advanced his language will be at three years old. With a weaker connection, children don’t progress as quickly, and this seems to have lasting impact.

Second, Kuhl went on to discover that babies’ brains do not learn to recognize foreign-language phonemes off a videotape or audiotape—at all. They absolutely do learn from a live, human teacher. In fact, babies’ brains are so sensitive to live human speech that Kuhl was able to train American babies to recognize Mandarin phonemes (which they’d never heard before) from just twelve sessions with her Chinese graduate students, who sat in front of the kids for twenty minutes each session, playing with them while speaking in Mandarin. By the end of the month, three sessions per week, those babies’ brains were virtually as good at recognizing Mandarin phonemes as the brains of native-born Chinese infants who’d been hearing Mandarin their entire young lives.

But when Kuhl put American infants in front of a videotape or audio recording of Mandarin speech, the infants’ brains absorbed none of it. They might as well have heard meaningless noise. This was true despite seeming to be quite engaged by the videos. Kuhl concluded: “The more complex aspects of language, such as phonetics and grammar, are not acquired from TV exposure.”

By implication, we can conclude that baby DVDs don’t delay neural commitment; rather, they have virtually no effect on auditory processing.
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