My oldest son is sixteen and a junior in high school. The other day we sat down with his college guidance counselor for the first time. Between that meeting and next December stretch months of thinking about college: visiting campuses, deciding where to apply, taking standardized tests, and assembling applications.
Having regular conversations is the most significant thing you can do for your children’s development. This is the message of Dr. Dana Suskind’s important and clear-eyed new book, Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain.
“No matter the language, the culture, the nuances of vocabulary, or the socioeconomic status, language is the element that helps develop the brain to its optimum potential,” writes Suskind, who is the founder and director of the Thirty Million Words Initiative at the University of Chicago.
Since I have also written a book about the importance of language for children’s brains, it’s not surprising that I would champion this one. But this is a particularly opportune moment to be talking about the power of talk.
I saw my neighbor on the street yesterday. She said “hello” and I said “hello.” No big deal? Wrong. Hello is a simple word and most of us say it and hear it many times each day. Yet each and every time, those two syllables—or even a simple “beep”—set off a process inside the skull as complicated and remarkable in its sequencing and precision as a Beethoven symphony.
IN THE EAR
The design of the human ear may not be streamlined, but it is effective, transforming sound waves into electrical signals the brain can understand. It is also particularly well suited to the human voice; our keenest hearing is usually in the range required to hear speech.
One of the best parts of reporting and writing about science is the gee whiz factor. As a regular part of my day, I stumble across facts and stories that make me say, “wow, I didn’t know that.” Sometimes I am surprised by how much of what I learn has been right under my nose all along.
Take the question of perception. Our eyes, ears, skin, nose and mouth are all receptors. Everything that comes into the brain enters through one of these doors. Because most of us take the world in through our senses effortlessly, we don’t give much thought or attention to how we do this.
My children were given math homework this summer in hopes of avoiding the infamous “brain drain.” That’s the tendency, between June and September, to lose a surprising amount of what they learned the previous school year. The other day, I finally sat down with the boys and made them start the assignments. And sure enough, after just a few weeks of vacation, they already seemed to have forgotten a lot of what they learned last year.
Fortunately for them, instead of freaking out, I was intrigued.