Background Noise Makes It Harder For Toddlers To Learn Language: Here's How Parents Can Help

Do you keep the TV on when you're chatting to your toddler?

Children find it harder to learn new words if they are surrounded by background noise, a study has found.

“Modern homes are filled with noisy distractions such as TV, radio, and people talking that could affect how children learn words at early ages,” said Brianna McMillan, doctoral student in psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who led the study.

“Our study suggests that adults should be aware of the amount of background speech in the environment when they’re interacting with young children.”

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Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison studied 107 children, aged 22 to 30 months, in three different experiments.

The children were taught names for unfamiliar objects, while either in an environment with either loud or soft voices in the background. They were then tested to see whether they had successfuly learned the new words they’d been introduced to.

In all three experiments, conducted as part of the research published in the journal ‘Child Development’, louder background noise was found to hinder the toddlers’ abilities to learn words.

“Results suggested experience with the sounds of the words without distracting background noise helps children subsequently map those sounds to meaning,” the study stated.

Co-author Jenny Saffran concluded: “Hearing new words in fluent speech without a lot of background noise before trying to learn what objects the new words corresponded to may help very young children master new vocabulary.

“But when the environment is noisy, drawing young children’s attention to the sounds of the new word may help them compensate.”

Clare Geldard, director of operations at children’s communication charity I CAN, told The Huffington Post UK she was not surprised “in the slightest” by the results.

“We would definitely concur that for young children, any kind of noisy background distraction makes it harder for them to learn,” she said.

“They are only just learning to channel their attention so having somebody saying words to them alongside a radio or TV is much more difficult.

“Learning to filter out background noise is a learned skill.”

Advice on combatting background noise and improving language development: Two strategies by Clare Geldard from I CAN.

1. Be aware of the noise level situation you are in.

Make sure when you want to talk and have play time with your child, background noise (including the TV or radio) is switched off. Have you stopped and listened to the background noises in your house? Make sure you haven’t become accustomed to them.

2. Keep your child focused through repetition.

Teaching new words comes with repetition, Geragad said. Have fun with the words and keep toddlers focused by “saying and doing” at the same time (teaching the word ‘orange’ by holding an ‘orange’).

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