x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Learning to make small talk

The process by which children acquire language has long been one of the wonders of humanity.

In the beginning was the coo. Astrid began making the soft murmur of vowel sounds when she was about two months old. Around four months she started adding consonants and cooing became babbling. Studies show that by six months old she will understand most of the basic sounds of her native language (English) as well as be able to comprehend some aspects of tone and meaning.

Astrid is coming from England back to Abu Dhabi in a few days. She will be nearly six months old. Apart from the pixelated blur of web-camera images, I have not seen her in four weeks. I am preparing myself for the impression of dramatic change that results from extended absence. In terms of baby development, four weeks is a very long time. According to my mother, who saw her recently, Astrid has “found her voice”.  

The process by which children acquire language has long been one of the wonders of humanity. The young brain is like a sponge soaking up words and meaning. It is efficient and effortless. Exactly how it works is not understood, although researchers are slowly unravelling the processes.

A recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that children younger than two years old should not watch television because of its detrimental effects on their learning to talk. Subsequent newspaper headlines declared that television makes children dimmer. The results are more complicated and go well beyond simple cause and effect.

Using tiny digital recorders concealed in specially designed vests, the study bugged more than 300 children aged between a few months and four years, accumulating days of raw audio. Researchers processed these recordings through speech identification programmes. From the results they discovered that watching television limits conversations between adults and children. Infants vocalised less and parents talked to them less in turn when a television was on. The study focuses on how television hinders conversation – the two-way exchange of words or sounds back and forth – rather than the mesmeric and stultifying powers of the medium itself.  


One of the most surprising things about this study had nothing to do with television. Apparently, even stories told face to face are not as effective for developing language skills as conversation. I have always considered stories – fables, fairy tales, folk tales, sagas, epics – a vital part of children’s development. From the Pintupi of central Australia to Georgians in Rudyard Kipling’s England, myriad cultures have told stories about the origins of animals, for example. The stories in One Thousand and One Nights draw on folk tales in Arabic, Egyptian, Indian and Persian to create many layered and richly varied whole. These stories are remnants of humanity’s oral tradition. They are at the bedrock of perpetuating belief systems. They act as conduits through which older people pass on values and cultural characteristics from one generation to the next.

Yet in terms of language development, such traditions are not as effective as conversation, according to this study. Taking time to talk to Astrid, to listen to her responses and let her respond in turn is clearly very important. Perhaps it is the interactivity of the process, the to and fro of sound and meaning. Perhaps the value lies in being forced to assert your identity through words, to be challenged to create a reality through language and being pressured to express yourself vocally. None of these things are strong points of television.

When it comes to learning to speak, children need to be heard as well as seen.  

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Astrid has learnt to crawl in the time she has been away. This development is pretty important. She will no longer stay put for more than a few seconds and can move at lightening speed. Her imminent arrival back in Abu Dhabi has therefore sparked a frantic bout of what is often referred to as childproofing.

Making the home safe for children is not the kind of activity that can be done in a hurry. It requires calm and objective reconnaissance. It demands intense scrutiny of all territory within a child’s reach. Down on hands and knees, the world is a different and dangerous place. Electrical sockets, wires, bottles of bleach, plastic bags and table corners: the list of hazards is long.

Websites providing advice on childproofing have done little to calm my nerves. Usually they begin with a mind-boggling statistic, such as 2.5 million children are killed or injured in the home every year. The world outside is often portrayed as dangerous for kids, but it turns out inside can be even more perilous.