Why Hannah Talks and Alyssa Doesn’t Ⅷ- Woodmam

A similar argument can be applied to the notion held by our society that having better or lesser verbal skills and reading skills is a function of innate verbal ability. To a parent, these skills seem innate, because from the moment their daughter could talk, she was precocious—speaking full sentences by two, reading words by three and books by four. But the parent’s unaware of his own influence in those first two years.

“When parents see development in their kids, they are only seeing the output—not the mechanisms underneath,” said Goldstein. “We just see significant changes, so parents tend to say, ‘It must be built in.’ I don’t think people are aware of what they are bringing to babies.”

According to an extensive study comparing identical twins to fraternal twins, headed by University of New Mexico’s Dr. Philip Dale, only 25% of language acquisition is due to genetic factors.

So do kids who get a head start keep their advantage, over time? Does being an early talker really mean the child will be a better reader, in elementary school? Or do other kids quickly catch up, once they hit the language spurt, too?

Scientists tend to say that both are true. The advantage is real, yet many kids do catch up, and show no long-term consequences. Dr. Bruce Tomblin, Director of the Child Language Research Center at the University of Iowa, noted that language measures are highly stable once children are in elementary school, but prior to that age, they’re not stable. “The trajectories of their future results look like spaghetti,” he said. “The only thing typical about typical language development was variability.”

According to Tamis-LeMonda, this is especially true for toddlers who spoke late, but still understood a lot of words early. “Sometimes a kid who seems to catch up wasn’t actually behind in the first place; their receptive vocabulary was proceeding apace, but they weren’t talking much because they were shy or didn’t quite have the motor control yet.”

Harvard University’s Dr. Jesse Snedeker has studied how international adoptees fare in the United States. These children often spend their first year, or years, in orphanages and with foster families, then come to American families that are quite well-off. Some adoptees do have learning difficulties, but “the adoptees who were typically developing… they caught up to their American-born peers within three years,” concluded Snedeker. This was true whether they were adopted at age one or age five—even up to age ten.

Nevertheless, the general trend is apparent: an early advantage in language can be quite meaningful, at least through the first several years of elementary school. Going back to the famous Hart and Risley study from the University of Kansas, Dr. Dale Walker analyzed how those children were doing academically six years later—in third grade, at age nine. The measures taken at age three, of how long kids’ average spoken sentences were, and how big their spoken vocabulary was, strongly predicted third-grade language skills. The correlation was strongest for their spoken language ability, and it was still quite strong for their reading, spelling, and other measures of verbal ability. It didn’t help with math, which wasn’t a surprise; presumably, this head start in language wouldn’t drive all cognitive functions.

It’s important to characterize early language precocity for what it is: a head start, but far from a guarantee. “It’s not like the infancy period is the only critical period,” said Tamis-LeMonda. “New skills are emerging in every period, and vocabulary development has to continually expand.”
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