The first three years of life boast the most rapid and robust brain growth, when 85% of the physical brain develops. At birth, the brain has about all of the neurons it will ever have and can create synapses faster than it will ever be able to. Synapses between neurons are strengthened by use. Rarely used synapses become weak before being eliminated.
Every day in the United States, one in 1,000 newborns is born profoundly deaf and another two to three out of 1,000 are born with partial hearing loss. Fluctuating hearing loss due to frequent ear infections could mean a young child is missing vital speech information.
Dr. Dana Suskind specializes in pediatric hearing loss and cochlea implantation at the University of Chicago and is the founder and director of the Thirty Million Words Initiative. With cochlear implant surgery, Dr. Suskind gave children the gift of sound, changing the trajectory of their lives in one day.
Suskind realized that surgery brought children closer to a new world, but the real change happened after surgery. Regarding development, the ability to hear is trivialized without a language rich environment. Hearing is a way for sounds to get into the brain for processing; we hear with our brains, not with our ears. Children’s brains need words to grow.
The Thirty Million Words Initiative refers to a 1990 study citing how many more words children from higher socioeconomic households were exposed to by age three compared to children from lower socioeconomic households. Those who grew up in word poor homes had smaller vocabularies, poorer grades, and lower IQs.
Thirty Million Words promotes baby talk (using rhythm, melodic pitch, and positive tone not fabricated words) and reading to babies. It encourages bilingual families to use mostly their native language and advocates for increased language exposure using the mantra, “Don’t just do it, talk them through it.” It promotes the Three T’s:
- Tune in: notice what a child is focused on and talk about it. Respond when a child communicates in any way.
- Talk more: narrate daily routines such as getting dressed and eating meals. Use description, detail, and variety.
- Take turns: keep the conversation going. Respond to a child’s sounds, gestures, and words and allow plenty of time for the child to respond. Ask questions that compel more than yes or no answers.
Teri Kite, Teacher of Deaf and Hard of Hearing for Northwest Colorado BOCES and Horizons Specialized Services, says: “Anything we recommend to increase language acquisition for a child with hearing impairment is also good for a child with normal hearing. Enriching language is a universal need in our world that is increasingly electronic.” Teri has seen how making communication fun can ultimately make for families of good communicators. “It’s never too early to begin purposeful communication with your child. Babies’ minds are little sponges.”
In collaboration with Colorado Hands and Voices, Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind, and The Listen Foundation, Horizons and BOCES are hosting three presentations on March 11th for Early Childhood professionals, families of children with hearing loss, older children with hearing loss, and families and children of all hearing abilities interested in language acquisition (with Thirty Million Words). For more information, contact Susan Mizen (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Teri Kite (email@example.com).