Is your toddler finding it difficult to learn new words? Be careful, it may be because of the presence of noisy distractions such as TV, radio and people talking in the home or at school, says a study. “Learning words is an important skill that provides a foundation for children’s ability to achieve academically,” said Brianna McMillan, doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US and lead author of the study.
The findings revealed that toddlers who were exposed to distracting noisy backgrounds found it difficult to learn and memorise new words. Conversely, children in the quieter background could successfully learn new words. They learned new words and their meanings only when they first heard them in a quiet environment.
This suggests that experience with the sounds of the words without distracting background noise helps children subsequently map those sounds to meaning, said the paper published in the journal Child Development.
“Hearing new words in fluent speech without a lot of background noise before trying to learn what objects the new words corresponded to may help very young children master new vocabulary,” added Jenny Saffran, Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Previous studies on the impact of environmental noise suggested that too much noise can affect children both cognitively and psycho-physiologically, as seen in more negative school performance and increased levels of cortisol and heart rate.
“The study suggests that adults should be aware of the amount of background noise in the environment when they are interacting with young children,” McMillan said.
Further, while louder background noise hindered toddlers’ ability to learn words, cues in the environment helped them overcome this difficulty.
Parents and teachers can reduce background noise or highlight important information to help children learn even when there is background noise as children will rarely be in a completely quiet environment when learning.
“When the environment is noisy, drawing young children’s attention to the sounds of the new word may help them compensate,” Saffran noted.
This may be especially important for low-income households because such homes on average have higher noise levels due to urban settings and crowding, the researchers pointed out.
In the study, 106 children of ages 22 to 30 months were part of various experiments in which they were taught names for unfamiliar objects and then tested on their ability to recognise the objects when they were labelled.
Only when background noise was quieter could the older toddlers successfully learn the new words.