Study:Background Noise Affects Toddlers' Ability to Learn Language

It makes sense if you think about it - that trying to learn something new, especially a new concept someone's explaining to you, would happen in a quiet environment. At least for the majority of people, the fewer distractions while they're concentrating, the better.

It's the same for toddlers, according to a new study published in Child Development. The conclusion shouldn't be surprising.

This study builds on previous research already demonstrating that background noise, televisions in particular, can limit a child's ability to learn. This new study goes on to specifically look at background noise as it relates to learning language.

Lead author Brianna McMillan, a psychology graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explains the link between learning words early and developing basic reading skills later on.

McMillan and her graduate adviser, psychology professor Jenny Saffran, looked at how well 23-month-old toddlers could pick up new words when subjected to loud background noise akin to people having an unrelated conversation about a foot away from the toddler, as well as softer background noise like what could be described as coffeehouse chatter. Twenty toddlers participated in the loud background noise group, and another 20 in the softer noise group.

With the background noise still playing, the researchers attempted to teach the toddlers new words by showing them images on a screen of waht each word meant. They then tested how well each group retained the new words.

Not surprisingly, toddlers learned better with softer background noise.

The researchers then replicated the experiment on 40 more toddlers about 6 months older. The results were the same.

Finally, the researchers conducted an experiment testing completely quiet backgrounds on 26 toddlers as they learned new words, before teaching them the meanings of the words with the loud background noise. This group of toddlers was successful in learning the new words.

Overall, this study seems to be testing the obvious. It seems a bit elementary to me. It's good, I suppose, to be certain where the baseline is -- what the best learning environment is for our toddlers.

However, I was surprised -- and disheartened -- to read the lead author's analysis of the study results. According to comments made to NPR, she said that it's not practical to completely turn off the radio or TV all the time around our toddlers, that it's now how she thinks we can or should live! She simply suggests parents be more aware of what their kids are hearing and think about turning off the TV "now and then."

I am a little shocked by this comment. Of course, we can turn off the radio and TV and any other screens. Many conscientious, and very effective, parents can go all day without subjecting their toddlers to TV. I'm not saying TV or the radio is bad, but moderation and monitoring is appropriate with anything our children, especially toddlers with their rapidly developing brains, are exposed to -- not to mention, ourselves.

There is a lot to be gained by us adults and all ages of children having time without the background noise of the TV and radio. Sometimes -- quite a lot of the time, for me -- it's good to rest our own brains from being either constantly on alert sensing and analyzing all the sound stimuli around us, or desensitizing our brain's ability to do just that with the constant drone of background chatter.

Right now, as I type this, there are no TVs or radios on in my home, and I am listening the gentle sounds of my children drawing pictures at the kitchen table and the little chirps of my indoor finches. I'm not trying to brag by saying that we watch less than 1 hour of TV most days, but just illustrate that it is possible that we can turn off the radio and TV!

Not to mention that McMillan seems to be forgetting about the American Academy of Pediatrics's media recommendations in the early childhood years.

We can feel the calm in my mental and emotional state, and even physically, when we enter the quiet of nature -- outside, or in the midst of just "being" with our families in our homes -- and I'm certain that any of our children can benefit just as much and, of course, be able to better learn, too.