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Babies Start Learning Language In The Womb. What Does That Mean For Generational Poverty?


Did you know the most impactful thing you can do for babies and toddlers to get them ready for school is talk to them? Language is a predictor of school success, and researchers can begin to predict which children will do well in school as early as three years old.

Children who know more words at age three enter kindergarten at age five more prepared and are more likely to be reading on grade level by third grade, a key indicator that a student will graduate from high school. Pre-K interventions don’t happen early enough, so to ensure children are ready to learn to read, parents need to start at the very beginning: pregnancy.

A recent study from researchers at the University of Kansas shows that the brain begins building the foundation of language as much as a month before birth. The study looked at fetal heart rate changes for the unborn babies of two dozen American mothers who were, on average, eight months pregnant.

Researchers played a recording from a bilingual speaker reading a passage in English and a passage in Japanese. The babies’ heart rates changed when hearing the second passage read in Japanese, a language with a distinctly different cadence than the mothers’ native English, but their heart rates did not change when the speaker read the second passage in English. This sensitivity to the rhythmic process of language had been seen in studies of days-old infants, but this new information indicates the beginning of language acquisition happens even before a baby is born.

Unborn Babies Are Already Learning

How much can an unborn baby hear? According to Utako Minai, associate professor of linguistics and the team lead for the study, babies can hear a good bit before birth. “Fetuses can hear things, including speech, in the womb. It’s muffled, like the adults talking in a ‘Peanuts’ cartoon, but the rhythm of the language should be preserved and available for the fetus to hear.”

Babies are born knowing their mother’s voice, and according Minai’s team, they are familiar with the rhythm of her language as well. The human brain begins building its wiring right from the start, and in the first few years of life, brain development careens along at rapid pace, forming one million neural connections every second. The more the brain is used, the more neural pathways form.

After a break to prune and organize, the brain continues the cycles of building and pruning to build more efficient circuits and complex processes on top of the initial foundation. This early building phase is a key period for language development where a baby’s caretakers play a primary role in teaching them to communicate.

The 30 Million Word Deficit

In the 1990s, University of Kansas child psychologists Betty Hunt and Todd R. Risley conducted a landmark study on how adult interactions with children affect language development. This study, “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young Children,” has informed early literacy programs for the past 20 years.

Hunt and Risley tracked 42 families with children who were seven to eight months old at the start of the study and spent one hour a month with the families until the children were three years old. Family income levels ranged from higher-income professional families to families on public assistance. In painstakingly counting the words spoken in each family they found that children in professional families heard on average 43 million words by age three, while children in low-income families heard only 11 million words—a more than 30 million word difference.

There was a stunning gap in vocabulary as well. Children on welfare knew roughly 500 words at age three compared to the more than 1,200 words that the children from professional families knew. Subsequent follow-up with these families showed this vocabulary gap predicted a corresponding gap in performance on third grade language tests as well.

This finding is important because reading proficiency in third grade is a predictor of future academic success. Third grade is the year reading goals shift. Until then, children are learning the basics of reading, sounding out the words and working on reading comprehension. After third grade, students need to be able to read to learn—history texts, literature, science articles, and math problems. If a child is not able to read on grade level by third grade, he is behind and may not catch up. A child who cannot read on grade level is four times more likely to drop out of high school before graduation.

It’s Not Just Words, But Interaction

The Hunt and Risley study found that interaction with caretakers was just as important to language development as hearing a rich vocabulary. In other words, you can’t just park your kid in front of the television to hear words. It’s the give and take of conversation that is key to building language. The Still Face Experiment, first introduced in 1975 by Dr. Edward Tronick of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, shows that this need for social interaction in learning to communicate is hardwired in babies.

In this experiment, mothers spend several minutes interacting with their babies. After a quick look away, the mothers look at their babies with a still face, not reacting to any attempts by their babies to entice them to talk and play again. The babies quickly become frustrated, reaching out and pointing, whatever they can do to get their mother’s attention, before melting into tears. It is this innate back and forth, give and take of communication shown in these experiments that stimulates formation of new neural connections in babies and young children.

In Georgia, the Department of Public Health is spearheading a new program, Talk With Me Baby, to narrow the word gap for babies in low-income families. Administered through the offices of the Women, Infants, and Children Supplemental Nutrition Program with locations in all 159 Georgia counties, counselors don’t just teach WIC recipients about the importance of “language nutrition” in caring for their infants, they model the back and forth communication with the babies so important for language development.

WIC recipients meet quarterly with nutrition counselors, so there is ample opportunity for follow-up and additional training. More than half of Georgia babies (50-60 percent) qualify for WIC, giving the program a wide reach, and 70 percent of Georgia third graders do not read on grade level, adding a sense of urgency to the program. While Talk With Me Baby is just a few years old and too new to fully evaluate its impact, the science it’s trying to use is promising.

Other organizations have taken notice of the science as well. Too Small to Fail, a joint effort of the nonprofit Next Generation and the Clinton Foundation, is working with Text for Baby to send low-income parents texts and messages throughout each day, little nudges and conversation starters to prompt communication.

How Words Affect Poverty

Early literacy is an interesting front in the War on Poverty. Since the 1960s, the United States has spent more than $5 trillion fighting poverty, only to see it decline by just a few percentage points. According to Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, former Georgia commissioner of public health, government anti-poverty programs have not met more success because they left out early language development. “Language is the very basis for solving the problem of poverty,” she says.

These studies point to the home environment and the interaction between babies and parents as being most important in early language formation.

While policy debates typically focus on preschool programs, these studies point to the home environment and the interaction between babies and caretakers as being most important in early language formation. Hunt and Risley found that 85 percent of vocabulary, conversational patterns, and language complexity demonstrated by the children in their study came from interaction with parents. The parents didn’t have to purchase fancy DVD packages or enroll in expensive classes. They just talked to their babies at meal times, bath times, and play times, even when their babies were too young to talk back.

A program like Georgia’s Talk With Me Baby—where teaching and mentoring is delivered to new mothers through an already existing statewide system of offices and clinics—may be a model for further innovation in early literacy intervention. It can work with private organizations, reducing the cost of these programs to taxpayers. Georgia Department of Public Health has established partnerships with the Marcus Autism Center, Emory University, the Get Georgia Reading Campaign, and others to create materials and train medical professionals throughout the state.

For the rest of us, this research on early language development is important as well. Parents, grandparents, childcare staff, church nursery workers, and anyone else who takes care of young children need to understand their role in teaching children to communicate. Loving, encouraging interaction with babies and young children costs nothing, but pays huge dividends toward a child’s future.