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Nurture Shock: Chapter 10 – Why Hannah Talks and Alyssa Doesn’t

These are my interpretations of the book, Nurture Shock.  I highly recommend reading the book if you want it straight from the horse’s mouth…

In this chapter of Bronson and Merryman’s landmark book, Nurture Shock, Bronson and Merryman bring down the entire “baby education” industry with the conclusion that baby DVDs have no effect on the language development.  So if you want to advance your child’s language development, showing him DVDs like Baby Einstein won’t help.  In fact, you would be better off letting your child watch adult shows with live actors because they would learn more from these.


This is because children need to see a person’s face as she talks.  The reason this makes all the difference between whether a baby is able to pick up the language or not is because babies learn to decipher speech partly by lip-reading – they need to watch how people move their lips and mouths to make sounds.  Babies need to learn when one word ends and another begins before they can understand what the words mean.

Baby DVDs like Baby Einstein don’t help children learn to communicate earlier because they show a series of images with a disconnected voice-over.  So what about the DVDs that show human faces talking?  Well, apparently they are better – so Signing Time beats Baby Einstein.  At the end of the day, however, DVDs still can’t beat a real live person.  This is because a live person responds directly to the baby.  A live person will notice baby’s gaze and can talk about what baby is looking at.  A live person will also hear baby’s responses and react directly to the sounds made by baby.  A television program can’t do either of these.  So if you want to maximise your returns, watch the DVDs with your baby and vocalise what your baby is learning.

You may have read in numerous baby books that it is important to talk to your baby and expose your baby to the language of the world around him.  The more language your baby is exposed to, the faster he will pick up the ability to speak.  This was found to be true based on a study showing a direct correlation between children from higher socio-economic backgrounds who were exposed to more words per hour compared to infants from welfare homes.  New research reveals that this isn’t the only thing that is important.  What is also important is how an adult responds to the baby.

There are two types of responses to factor into the adult’s reaction to the baby – physical and vocal.  Non-vocal responses, such as a touch or a hug, can also have an enormous impact on a baby’s language development.  This shows that infants aren’t just mimicking what they hear from their parents.  Physical responses from parents can also illicit an increased frequency of babbling and even the maturity of the babbling.  It is like a reward to the baby for making the sound and it encourages the baby to make more similar sounds.  Vocal responses encourage the child to mimic.  For instance, parents making vowel sounds encourage more vowel sounds from the baby.

Although it is good to be responsive to your baby in order to accelerate his language acquisition, it is also important not to overdo it.  Just as Jill Stamm said in Bright from the Start, children need “down time” to consolidate what they have learned.  Additionally, responding at a high level throughout the day reduces the power of the reward – intermittent rewards are often more motivating than constant rewards.

Another factor to consider is the type of sounds you are reinforcing.  Ideally, what you want to be doing is respond to more and more mature sounds so that your baby progresses from meaningless babbling to making more meaningful sounds that will later contribute towards real speech.  Some parents, in their eagerness to increase their response rate from their babies, may make the mistake of reinforcing less resonant sounds.  By making it too easy for baby to get attention, they inadvertently slow development.

There are two other mistakes parents can make when helping a baby to develop language skills:

  1. When object labeling, it is important to follow the child’s attention.  Some parents make the mistake of intruding by trying to direct a child’s attention.  It is important to allow the child to show some interest in the object first.
  2. When object labeling, some parents ignore the child’s cues and take their cues from what they think the child is trying to say.  For instance, a baby might be holding a spoon and saying, “beh”, but instead of correctly identifying the spoon as a spoon, the adult thinks the baby is trying to say “bottle” and responds with, “Bottle?  You want your bottle?  I’ll go get your bottle.”  This is called criss-crossed labeling and it can have a strong negative effect on language acquisition.

What other things can parents do to reinforce language acquisition?

  1. Use parentese – the sing song voice that parents instinctively use to talk to babies makes it easier for babies to pick up language.
  2. Use motionese – when talking about an object, shaking, twisting, and moving it around helps to draw the baby’s attention to the object.
  3. Listening to multiple speakers – babies pick up language faster when they hear it spoken by different individuals, compared to hearing it just from one person.  This helps them learn phonics despite the differences in pitch and speed as different individuals speak differently.

If you want to know how to help jump start your child’s language skills, you can read the article: “11 ways to jump-start language skills“.

It was interesting to review this chapter again after my immersion into right brain development.  There are a number of points I’m still trying to consolidate in my mind but we’ll talk about them in a later post.


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

2 thoughts on “Nurture Shock: Chapter 10 – Why Hannah Talks and Alyssa Doesn’t

  1. Thanks dear. This reaffirms that 4 years of sacrificing CSI on telly has turned Jack into a chatterbox of quite some repute… Jade shows signs of following her brother’s lead since he talks to her non-stop too…


  2. Yes, dear. And I’m glad I have done enough of the “right things” that Gavin has not suffered from all our TV watching… It remains to be seen, however, how Gareth is affected. Let’s hope I’m responding to those cues appropriately.


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