Background Noise Stifles Toddlers’ Language Learning, Study Says

language learning

(Image: Gymboree)

A study published in the journal Child Development has shown that loud noises in the background, and particularly television noise, can make it more difficult for toddlers to hone their language skills.

In the midst of loud talking, blasting car radios, and siblings shouting, toddlers are attempting to put words and meanings together and starting to make sentences out of words. The noise affects their ability to concentrate.

NPR’s Carolyn Beans writes that other studies have already found that background racket can interfere with children’s ability to learn. But less research has taken place on how background noise affects toddlers as they begin to learn language.

Brianna McMillan, a psychology graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says learning words early in life is necessary and can affect a child’s ability to read later on. McMillan, the lead author of the study, added:

“These initial word learning experiences are very foundational for how kids succeed later in life.”

Along with her graduate adviser Jenny Saffran, a professor of psychology, McMillan tested toddlers at approximately 23 months to find whether louder or quieter background speech affected how they learned words.

In the first test, the researchers had 40 toddlers listen to recordings of new words used in sentences. The scientists also had recordings of background speech playing at the same time, sounds similar to people chatting in the same room. The noise was louder for some of the toddlers. Those exposed to the quieter noise were more successful at learning the new words.

“Modern homes are filled with noisy distractions such as TV, radio, and people talking that could affect how children learn words at early ages. Our study suggests that adults should be aware of the amount of background speech in the environment when they’re interacting with young children.”

In the second test, 40 different toddlers ages 28 to 30 months were introduced to new words to determine if slightly older kids could do a better job of overcoming the intrusion of background noise. Once again, the youngsters who were exposed to the quieter noise were better able to learn the new words.

The third experiment included 26 older toddlers who were introduced to two-word labels in a quiet setting. Then, the young ones were taught the meanings of four-word labels, two they had just been exposed to and two new words. Toddlers were taught the meaning of all four words in the same level of noisiness that impaired the second test group.

These children learned the new words only when they were first exposed to them in the quieter environment. This test suggests that learning words in settings that do not have distracting background noise made it easier for children to wire those sounds to meanings, says the Society for Research in Child Development.

Keeping a child’s environment quieter is an important task for parents. However, writes Dana Dovey of Medical Daily, a study published earlier this year suggested that introductions to positive noise, such as a musical toy, can be a good thing.

Forty-seven babies aged nine months who were raised in English-speaking households were given musical or non-musical toys to play. Brain scans were taken while the babies listened to tones and sounds of a foreign language. The results indicated that the babies who had been given the musical interventions had improved activity in the auditory and prefrontal cortical regions, both of which are associated with language and learning language.

Dovey says:

“The researchers suggested that the musical experience and exposure may have helped the babies to better detect certain patterns in sounds and therefore better prepare them to predict the timing of future auditory stimuli, such as speech.”

The authors of the University of Wisconsin-Madison study explained that noisy classrooms could also create a barrier for children’s academic progress. The scientists added that too much noise can also affect kids’ mental development. Researchers advise parents and teachers to reduce background noise as much as possible or highlight information if there is auditory distraction, reports Colin Fernandez for The Daily Mail.