Study Reports That Conversations Are Key to Language Development

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

“Just talk to your baby - he just needs to hear you speak. Speak to him every chance you get – while you cook dinner, fold the laundry, or change his diaper.” This advice is often given by well-meaning individuals when parents have their first baby.  While providing good language input to a young child is important, a one-sided running commentary isn’t very helpful at all, according to an article from Science Daily in July 2009.

Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles sought to determine the key factors that contribute to a child’s language development. Studying 275 families of young children (ages 0-4), they recorded the adult speech, child speech, and television within the child’s environment, and looked at the effect each of these had on the child’s language development. They found the following:

  • Back-and-forth conversation contributed the most to the child’s future language score (six times more so than adult speech alone)
  • Adult monologuing (one-sided conversation, such as reading a book to a child without the child’s participation) was more weakly linked to language development
  • TV viewing has no effect on language development (neither positive nor negative)

These results highlight the need to engage children in back-and-forth conversation. Adult speech alone, such as talking to a child without encouraging the child to participate in the conversation, is not as helpful as some might advise.

Hanen’s views on the news

This study confirms the approach utilized in Hanen Programs, in which interaction between children and caregivers is promoted with the goal of promoting two-sided conversation. The following Hanen principles and strategies ensure that two-way conversation happens:

Respond to nonverbal communication

A conversation doesn’t have to involve talking! Children learn the basics of conversation well before they learn to talk. When children take turns while interacting, they are building their conversation skills. Therefore, when a child looks, reaches, gestures, makes a sound or uses facial expression, treat this as a conversational turn and respond to keep the conversation going!

►Encourage children to initiate conversation

The best way to encourage a child to initiate conversation is to stop talking yourself. The principle of Observe, Wait, and Listen (a strategy found in all Hanen Programs) encourages caregivers to pause (without speaking) and give the child an opportunity to initiate an idea during motivating situations and routines. It is difficult to Observe, Wait and Listen, and it requires a conscious effort not to talk or direct the child. However, if you count to 10 without speaking or doing anything, you will be giving your child a chance to initiate.

►Keep the conversation going: Encourage children to take turns during conversation

You can keep the conversation going by making comments about what your child is interested in or communicating about and not asking too many questions. For example, if your child is fascinated by a barking dog, you can say “That dog is barking! Maybe he wants to go for a walk” (comment) vs “What’s the dog doing?”(question to which you know the answer).

A balance of comments related to the child’s interests and genuine questions (that don’t test the child) will keep the conversation going.  Questions that test the child, are too difficult or don’t relate to the child’s focus at that moment are conversation stoppers.

►Make story time interactive

Instead of reading a book from start to finish, use books as a topic for conversation. After reading a page or part of a page in a book, wait for the child to initiate an idea. Then, provide a response based on the child’s idea. Or, skip the text and just talk about the pictures. In this way, story time becomes conversation time.

►Don’t rely on the television to teach language

Passive television viewing does not promote a child’s language skills. Sitting with your child and talking about his favourite TV show or character or about a theme explored on a TV show will do more to build his language skills.

In summary…

The key to promoting children’s language competence is encouraging them to engage in conversations. This principle is at the very foundation of Hanen Programs®. “Conversation” doesn’t just mean talking. For children who aren’t yet talking, it means encouraging them to initiate and take turns during interactions by sending nonverbal messages. To quote Dr. Jill Gilkerson, co-author of the UCLA study, “Talk is powerful, but what’s even more powerful is engaging a child in meaningful interactions – the ‘give and take’ that is so important to the social, emotional, and cognitive development of infants and toddlers”.

This approach to talking to and interacting with a child comes from The Hanen Centre’s It Takes Two to Talk® (Pepper and Weitzman), a practical guidebook for parents who are concerned about their child’s language development.

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


University of California - Los Angeles. "Conversing Helps Language Development More Than Reading Alone." ScienceDaily 17 July 2009.