Discussion

This chapter focused on children's early language development and the role of parents in supporting their children's language achievements. We documented the impressive variation that exists in children's early understanding and production of words, the developmental timing of specific language milestones, and children's cognitive performance more broadly. Longitudinal investigations in our laboratory consistently yield strong associations between children's emerging language competencies

Insufficient Enriched

36-Month Quality of Literacy Experiences Figure 4.17 Bayley MDI scores at 36 months for children at the extremes of literacy environments.

and the quality of parent-child engagements, particularly verbal responsiveness, both within a given age and across the first 3 years of life.

Although infants are communicative partners from birth, the dawning of language is officially marked by infants' first understanding of conventional words. For many infants, this entry into "formal" language occurs around 9 months of age, and coincides with a number of important social-cognitive achievements, including infants' growing abilities to discern the attention and intentions of others during social exchanges. However, as we and others have shown, early understanding is fragile, and it is not for several weeks or even months that infants begin to display flexible understanding across different contexts. Language production, which is shifted up in time by about 3 months, shows a similar pattern, moving from the context-dependent and restricted use of words to flexible expression of words. At the start of production, words are "effortful" and bound to the concrete, here-and-now, not yet functioning as true symbols for the child. By around 18 months, children not only acquire words at an astonishingly impressive rate, but they can now use words flexibly across different contexts, categories of meaning and time frames. In short, a "word is not always a word," but instead varies with definitional criteria.

Notably, children vary enormously in these early language achievements, and our research has both documented this variation as well as sought to understand the parenting factors that predict these child differences. As we have shown, in both mothers and fathers and across middle- and low-income populations, parents' language use consistently predicted children's language and cognitive development. Moreover, the quality of parents' language, in terms of parents' verbal responsiveness to their children's initiatives and the diversity of meanings that parents express when talking with their children, predicted children's early language beyond the quantity of parents' language. Of course, mothers and fathers who frequently respond to their children's initiatives are likely to be talking more as well (Hoff, 2002), and the amount of language that children hear clearly has beneficial effects (Huttenlocher et al., 1991; Hart & Risley, 1992, 1995). However, when we contrasted quantitative measures of parental language, such as language amount or parents' total number of utterances, with qualitative indices of parental language, such as verbal responsiveness and language diversity, it was the quality of parental language that made a larger difference. This work attests to the importance of focusing research on both language amount and language quality.

A question that should be raised is why parents' responsiveness influences children's language development. We propose that verbal responsiveness supports children's language growth for many reasons, including its role in defining topics of communication. Responsive verbal information enhances children's opportunity to learn new words because the speaker's language is matched to children's current interests (Bloom, 1993, 1998a). Second, and relatedly, connections between words and their referents depend on psychological "salience." Children inform parents about what they deem to be worthy topics of communication through their facial expressions, eye gaze, gestures, and vocalizations, and other behaviors. During the early stages of language growth, children's own perspective and affective appraisals of situations dominate shared communications (Bloom, 1978, 2000). Consequently, the onus is largely placed on parents to match verbal input to what children consider to be salient.

Additionally, temporal contiguity or promptness is a key defining feature of responsiveness. When messages are communicated is important to consider together with what is communicated. Verbal information that coincides with changes in infant behavior (e.g., occurring as soon as a child shifts attention to a new object) exerts stronger influence on children's language gains than information that is not temporally connected with children's initiatives. We offer two explanations for the importance of timing (see Tamis-LeMonda & Bornstein, 2002). First, children are inclined toward identifying environmental contingencies early in development (Dunham & Dunham, 1995). Moreover, "dumb at-tentional mechanisms," such as those underlying learning more generally, have been posited to facilitate children's mapping words to objects and events (Plunkett, 1997; Smith, 1995). The likelihood that two events, such as a word/phrase and its external referent, will come to be associated increases if both events occur within a brief "time window" (Rovee-Collier, 1995). Conversely, new information that is encountered after a time window has "closed" is no longer associated with the initial event (Boller

& Rovee-Collier, 1992). The dependence on time windows is especially strong during infancy when a linguistic knowledge base is being established and associative networks are forming (Rovee-Collier, 1995). Accordingly, children should be more likely to connect words to experiences when the two are temporally connected and when the experience is salient to the child.

We also extended our research on the social contexts of early language development to children from low-income families, as well as to aspects of the broader home environment that extend beyond parents' responsive engagements. Although the developmental literature is characterized by continued controversy about whether parenting predicts child outcomes similarly across different ethnic/cultural and demographic groups, our research suggests that certain features of parenting consistently predict positive child outcomes across diverse populations. These include verbal responsiveness, language diversity, literacy activities, and the provision of learning activities to children. As an example, families from the Early Head Start National Evaluation study, which is comprised of substantial proportions of European American (45%), African American (30%), and Latin American (25%) families, were observed longitudinally when children were 14, 24, and 36 months. Children's home experiences were examined in relation to language and cognitive outcomes within and across the three ages. As described above, children from environments that were consistently high on parents' responsiveness, learning activities, and learning materials scored up to 20 points higher on standardized measures of cognitive status than did children who experienced consistently low environments. These patterns maintained across all three ethnic/racial groups. Therefore, although children from different groups might benefit from experiences that are unique to their cultural backgrounds, it is also the case that enriched language and learning environments are a common pathway to children's language development and school readiness.

A closing observation warrants discussion, and suggests important directions for modeling social influences on children's outcomes over time. Language development unfolds in a social context and should be considered from a transactional perspective (Sameroff, 1975). That is, parents affect children's emerging language abilities just as children's emerging abilities affect parenting. For example, by definition verbal responsiveness reflects the temporal sequence of "child act — parent respond," and therefore depends largely on children's own behavioral and verbal expressions. Mothers and fathers alike can only respond to their children's vocalizations, can only imitate or expand on their children's utterances, and can only remark on their children's play actions if their children emit a sound or word or act on objects. Therefore, children's language achievements are rooted in a dynamic history of behaviors in children, parents, and the dyad. Analytic models that capture both the micro-genetic unfolding of parent-child engagements in real-time, as well as models that test the transactional influences of child-to-parent and parent-to-child over developmental time, are warranted. Such models might reveal, for example, the specific characteristics and behaviors in children that evoke specific responses in parents, how those responses further affect children's development, and how developmental changes in children come to shape parenting over time.

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