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HeartMind e-News: Teach, Learn, Lead

A monthly publication dedicated to trauma-informed, compassionate school practices that help educators, students, and families move toward a sense of wholeness and well-being


FEATURED ARTICLE


Language Nutrition

Tin Nguyen, CEI Intern

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Language nutrition is crucial in nourishing children’s language development. By “language nutrition,” Zauche and colleagues (2016) mean any meaningful interactions between children and their caregivers that are rich in language. We can think of language nutrition the same way we consider nutrition in its general sense. This includes:


  • identifying and formulating dietary goals for children’s growing body;
  • providing a balance of vitamins, proteins, minerals, carbohydrates, and fat; and
  • adjusting the amounts, textures, and habits.


An investigation conducted by King and colleagues (2021) found that in early infancy having a language nutrient-rich environment is associated with more neural connections in language regions of the brain.


Below is a discussion of some features of language nutrition at home, how language-rich interactions could shape growth, and insights from promising intervention techniques which caregivers—including parents and educators—could leverage to foster children’s developmental milestones.

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What are Examples of a Language-Rich Interaction?

Some ways that children may receive language nutrition at home are through conversations and reading books with their parents. Through these language-rich interactions, parents help children hone their ability to not only make sense of what they hear, but also grasp meanings of words.


As we further compare language nutrition to the daily dietary needs of a growing child, the importance of social and emotional interactions becomes evident (Zauche et al., 2016). From close contact and attachment in nursing a newborn infant to connection with eye gaze, smiles, and appealing words and songs, we can make the linkage with language nutrition. However, as caregivers employ physical and mindful connections with young children while reading aloud and experiencing the vocabularies and actions in a book, and during daily conversations, they are also providing the basic nutrients to further the growth of their children.

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Listen, Speak, and Take Turns

Spoonfuls of language nutrition inputs come from simple day-to-day conversations between parents and children. Though the term “simple” may be misleading, reports such as Zauche and colleagues’ (2016) review — of over 100 carefully vetted articles published between 1990 and 2014 — invite us to consider not only the amount of language nutrition, but also how to deliver it to meet children’s developmental needs. The evidence is clear: how often children and parents take turns speaking and responding to each other matters more than the number of words said or (over-)heard.


Kind and colleagues (2021) recently reported on their research on language interactions between five- to eight-month-old infants and their parents. They found that conversational turn-taking particularly appears to bear benefits in the organization of the brain areas that are important to language learning, especially the superior temporal cortex (a region key to identifying sounds and understanding words). Conversations with parents that are interactive, rather than just talkative, make a critical difference in brain activation and language development.


What further distinguishes simply talking with taking turns is that the latter also draws attention, responsiveness, and intention between and from both parents and children. Children listen to what parents say, try to understand, and then decide on responses depending on the topic at hand. (For infants, their verbal responses would be in the form of “babbling.”) This back-and-forth interaction, when mindfully planned by the caregiver, and with eye gaze and/or physical contact, facilitates children’s incidental word learning, appreciation of language structure, and confidence in their verbal skills (Zauche et al., 2016). In turn, parents attune and reply to their children’s utterances and behaviors, expanding their children's communicative skills.

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The 3 T’s of Language Nutrition

Implementing a dietary plan of language-rich interactions can be regarded as a parental investment in their child’s development. In 2021, List and colleagues conducted clinical trials on practical strategies that parents can use to invest in their children’s language development and general cognitive growth. Their intervention included 3T’s for caregivers to keep in mind when engaging in conversation with young ones: 

  1. tuning in,
  2. talking more, and
  3. taking turns.


These three specific steps support children's language learning by providing a model for how language is used for communication. List’s findings suggest that parents who establish a routine use of responsive and interactive language-rich behaviors can bolster children’s vocabulary and social emotional abilities. Caregivers can use this formula in daily conversations, as well as during shared book reading with children. Parents often turn to books as they are embedded with a variety of vocabulary words and idea structures to broaden children’s language capacity and knowledge background.


Overall, evidence of language nutrition gives educators another compelling rationale for intertwining the benefits of socio-emotional stimulations with language-rich interactions.


Implications for Educators

Early childhood teachers who are concerned about children’s language development, cognition, and academic readiness could apply language nutrition strategies in their interactions with children by using the 3T’s suggested by List and colleagues (2021). Particularly critical is “taking turns.” For children who are most at-risk, increasing opportunities for supportive turn-taking could be essential to advancing language, cognition, and a sense of social emotional well-being. Teachers could also partner with parents and other caregivers to help them identify language nutrition goals and arrange activities – book reading is often helpful – to further the 3T’s and nurture both brain development and positive adult-child interactions.

References


King, L. S., Camacho, M. C., Montz, D. F., Humphreys, K. L., & Gotlib, I. H. (2021). Naturalistic language input is associated with resting-state functional connectivity infancy. Journal of Neuroscience, 41(3), 424-434.


List, J. A., Pernaudet, J., & Suskind, D. L. (2021). Shifting parental beliefs about child development to foster parental investments and improve school readiness outcomes. Nature Communications.


Zauche, L. H., Thul, T. A., Mahoney, D., & Stapel-Wax, J. L. (2016). Influence of language nutrition on children’s language and cognitive development: An integrated review. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 36, 318-333.