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Infants in a Noisy World: Does Noise Make It More Difficult to Learn to Talk?

By Lauren Lowry
Hanen Certified Speech-Language Pathologist and Hanen Staff Member

Have you ever been to a noisy cocktail party and found yourself having to concentrate more than usual on what your conversation partner is saying? It can be very difficult to block out background noise when trying to focus on what someone is saying. This is also true for babies, and too much noise could have adverse effects on the development of their language skills. “It seems to be the case that in noisy households, kids have lower vocabulary skills”, explains George Hollich, the principle investigator of four studies conducted at John Hopkins University in 2002.

The effect of background noise on infants’ speech development

Four studies, described in Science Daily in September 2005, looked at the influence of background noise on an infant’s ability to concentrate on speech. Seven-month-old infants were shown videos of a woman talking who emphasized a key word (such as “feet”).

  • In the first video, the audio (the woman’s voice) matched the video (the image of the woman speaking).
  • In the second video, the audio and video did not match (the infants heard the woman’s voice but saw someone different).
  • In the third video, the audio was presented with a still frame of the woman.

In addition, during all of the videos, a man’s voice spoke in the background about an unrelated topic (to create background noise). Later on, the infants’ ability to focus on the key word the woman had spoken versus an irrelevant word was measured. The results of these studies were as follows:

  • Despite the presence of background noise (the man speaking), infants who had watched the first video (in which the audio matched the video) were able to focus on the key word two seconds longer than an irrelevant word. Two seconds is considered a lengthy time in terms of an infant’s attention span.
  • Infants who watched the second or third videos were not able to grasp the key word as well.

What this means is that in the presence of background noise, infants rely on seeing the speaker’s face in order to focus on what is being said. "One of the things they can do is use what they see to hear a little bit better," George Hollich explains. Without such visual cues, important words cannot be distinguished from competing language or background noise.

Hanen’s view on the news

Infants and very young children hear so much “stuff” every day. They hear speech, noises around the house, noises on the street and in the air. So, in their everyday lives, how do infants sort through all the things they hear to figure out what the words coming out of adults’ mouths mean? How do they know when one word ends and another begins? How do they know which is the most important word in the sentence?

They learn this when adults make it easy for them. The Hanen Centre has spent years refining the art of helping parents, caregivers and educators adapt their behaviour to make it as easy (and enjoyable) as possible for young children to learn to communicate.

Some of the Hanen strategies and principles that parents can use to support their child’s learning include the following:

Be face-to-face with your child and down at his physical level – ensuring you are face-to-face with a child when you interact means that the child can filter out background distractions and watch your face (facial expressions, lip and mouth movements) to “see” what you are saying. Try sitting or lying on the floor when you play with your child, or sit in a chair facing the child while he eats in his highchair.

Use visual clues to help a child tune into important words use actions and gestures (e.g. hands out, palms face up for “gone”), offer demonstrations (e.g., show a child how you stir sugar into tea), hold up objects or point to pictures to help a child focus on and understand the most important words. They also block out other distractions.

Simplify your language modify what you say with the 4 S’s (a strategy from Hanen's It Takes Two to Talk® parent guidebook) helps a child tune in to your words:

  • Say Less: use shorter sentences
  • Stress: emphasize key words with your voice and intonation
  • Go Slow: speak at a slower pace
  • Show: use gestures, objects, pictures to emphasize key words

Minimize background noise and distractionsthis is important for infants and very young children, especially those who are having difficulty with communication development. This could mean:

  • playing in a quiet place
  • turning off the TV or music
  • finding time for one-to-one interactions
  • choosing quiet toys when you want to interact with a child, or speak to the child after the toys’ sounds have stopped so that the child can focus on what you have to say. 

In summary...

These studies on noisy environments emphasize the importance of being face-to-face with infants and young language learners when we speak to them. Infants and young children have difficulty filtering out distracting background noise and attending to speech at the same time. Living in a noise-free home is impossible, but by adopting some of the Hanen strategies, caregivers can find ways to help their child “tune in” to language.

To find out more about how Hanen can help you build your child’s language development, click here.

References

Purdue University. "Psychologists Test Effects of Household Noise on Children's Verbal Development". ScienceDaily. 1 September 2005.