The next time you’re singing the ABCs or reading a book with your toddler, you might want to turn down the TV. A new study suggests background noise could make it more difficult for children to learn new words.
The research should encourage caregivers to think twice about constantly keeping the television or radio on while interacting with young children, says University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student and lead study author Brianna McMillan.
“TV and radio are an ever present part of most homes nowadays,” she says. “While I don’t think that children need to be raised in completely silent environments, I think that reducing the amount of background noise may help support children’s language development.”
McMillan’s study involved 106 toddlers, ages 22 to 30 months. Researchers taught children the names of unfamiliar objects, and then tested them, in three different experiments, on how well they could recognize the objects and recall the new words.
In the first two experiments, both younger and older toddlers learned new words better when background speech was quieter. In the third experiment, older toddlers in a noisy environment were only able to successfully learn new words they had previously heard in a quiet environment.
This third experiment suggests that first exposing children to new words in a quiet setting may help them learn their meaning later—even when distractions are present—study co-author Jenny Saffran said in a press release. And when the environment is noisy, she added, “drawing children’s attention to the sounds of new words may help them compensate.”
These suggestions may be especially important for low-income households, the authors say, which tend to be crowded and located in noisy urban settings. The study did not look at the effects of non-verbal background noise like traffic or machinery, but previous research has shown that children are vulnerable to this type, as well. (As far as McMillan knows, however, no one has looked directly at whether it affects a toddler’s ability to learn words.)
In recent years, parenting experts have encouraged parents to talk to their children regularly to develop language skills, according to McMillan. And while this is important, she says, so is thinking about what else is going on around them while these conversations are happening.
“I think my research highlights that children are very adept word learners, but they are at the mercy of their environment,” she says. “In addition to encouraging parents to talk to their children more, it is also important to encourage parents to think about how their general home environment may influence their child’s development.”