Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Power of Music

We know from experience that music can influence how we feel. We can play music to set a mood for dinner. Children seem to respond to music as well, some music is soothing and may help babies sleep while other music seems exciting to them. Can babies tell the difference between happy and sad music? How early can they distinguish these differences?

A research study published in the Infant Behavior and Development focused on these questions in babies ages 3-, 5-, 7-, and 9 months of age. How is it possible to even tell if babies can make these distinctions?! The researcher in the study used habituation. The basic idea is this: When you hear something new, you usually notice it. But, if it's not new or the same thing is presented several times you get bored and no longer pay attention to it. Same thing with babies. They initially become alert and might look around to see what the source is when they hear a new sound. After the same thing is presented several times they no longer care-- they become habituated to the sound. There are many variations to this scheme depending on the question and on the baby's age.

In this experiment babies of different ages were habituated to sad or happy music. The researchers did 3 experiments to understand what the babies were and weren't paying attention to and to understand whether they could really tell the music apart and under what circumstances.

The results indicated that first babies at all ages habituated to the music. But, only babies over 3 months were able to distinguish between the happy and sad music but in different ways depending on age. When the 5 month olds and 7 month olds heard sad music during habituation they paid more attention to the happy music. But, when they heard happy music during habituation they didn't seem to pay more attention to the sad music. The oldest group (9-months old) were able to notice the change in both directions (from happy to sad; sad to happy).

What does all this mean? The relationship between music and language is not well known, but this is a good step toward this understanding. Music, like language and speech, can be used to convey meaning. Babies seem to be able to pick up on differences related to tone, intonation, pitch, and tempo (all which differentiate happy and sad music). This doesn't mean they know what sad or happy is, only that they can recognize the differences in the music. But, even very young children are starting to at least be able to tell the differences associated with affect. Being able to recognize these differences may be important in learning how to learn emotion and mood which provides information beyond what is said and helps in development of effective communication.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

So you may be wondering what vision, hearing, and crawling have to do with language? Turns out that these are the ways your baby gets information about the world and about you that gives her something to talk about when she gets ready to use words. If you have language, you have to use it to talk about things you know about. So what your baby sees and hears in her first year matters a LOT for making language development happen. What she does when she learns to roll over and crawl, walk and move things around with her hands helps her to figure out what the world is like and how things work. Watching and listening to other people talk gives her the information she needs to start learning sounds and words to use herself. So, even though vision, and hearing and crawling seem far away from language, they are really completely necessary to get it started. The experiences that you give your baby in her first year that use her senses and her growing ability to move and explore are her "work tools" for learning to talk!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

TV Decreases Children's Language Use

I think in a lot of ways that it makes sense. If young children are watching TV then they're not interacting with adults. Interaction is the way children learn how to communicate, what words to use, and the back and forth of turn-taking. Turn-taking provides a critical foundation for language learning.

A recent study in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine was reported in the Huntsville Natural Parenting Examiner today. I went and hunted down the original study. I was interested in what the practical effects were and what they did exactly.

The researchers used a system called LENA. This system uses a digital processor to record and count the language (in words) children produce and what they hear throughout the day. For research this is a powerful way to track children's linguistic exposure and to document their development. The researchers used LENA for this purpose. They examined how many words children heard spoken by adults, how much television they heard, and how many words they used.

They found that for every hour children listened to television (or that television was on in the presence of the child), they heard between 500-1000 fewer words. They were about 1/4 of a standard deviation lower in their vocalizations and turn taking for every hour of television they heard. Children who were exposed to television used correspondingly fewer turns for every hour of hearing TV.

What does this mean? From a practical perspective, more TV means less interaction. Less interaction seems to lead to less language learning. Of course there are times when parents simply need children to pay attention to something else. I remember those early months when even taking a shower uninterrupted seemed like a big accomplishment. We do need strategies for getting through the day and television could be one of those tools. But, especially for young children, it should not be the only one or even the primary one. I still agree that limiting TV exposure for children-- especially those under two (but even older kids) will lead to more productive communication.