Proof Points: Building vocabulary in infancy

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By Jill Barshay

More than 20 years ago, psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley discovered what they called the “30 million word gap” between low- and high-income families. The number and the study have been under attack and a new generation of researchers are making the case that it’s not how much you talk to your child that matters, but the quality of the conversation and the nuances of the back-and-forth interaction that can be more important in brain development.  

This week I’m sharing a provocative new study, about how to talk to one-year-old crawlers, to give you a taste of research at the forefront of the field. The draft study, “Caregiver encouragement to act on objects is related with crawling infants’ receptive language,” was conducted by Lukas Lopez and Eric Walle at the University of California, Merced.

Read the column
Key Findings 
  • Crawling babies whose parents directed them to play with a toy or an object had larger vocabularies than crawlers whose caregivers didn’t talk to them this way. 

  • Earlier research has found that language development accelerates when kids learn to walk and this type of parent talk might close the vocabulary gap between early and late walkers at the age of 13 months.

Parent Takeaway 
  • One researcher recommends paying close attention to your baby, noticing objects that capture their attention and using those moments to interact.  

  • Being early probably doesn’t matter in the long run. Late walkers likely catch up, physically and verbally, with their early walking peers. 

Lit Review 
  1. Walle, E. A., & Campos, J. J. (2014). Infant language development is related to the acquisition of walking. Developmental Psychology, 50(2), 336–348. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0033238 
  2. Lopez, Lukas D. & Walle, Eric A. Caregiver encouragement to act on objects is related with crawling infants’ receptive language, University of California, Merced, 2021 draft paper. 
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