Have you ever been in a crowded room and heard your name in the flow of background conversations? Researchers call this common phenomenon the cocktail party effect.

Even though infants are not regulars at the local bar, they are primed for the cocktail party effect from a very young age. But of course, there’s a catch.

In my Oct. 2 column, I alluded to cautionary tales that come with the territory of implementing research into practice. This is the first of those, focusing on how infants accomplish one of the most incredible tasks imaginable: learning language.

Translating research into practice is a complex art. Whether it be our eagerness to prevent cancer or cure the educational system in our nation, the work of scientists frequently gets translated into sound bites, and critical nuances get lost in translation. In the case of raising children, throw in a $20 billion toy industry and it can become impossible to see the fine lines we are supposed to be walking.

There is no question infants need to be exposed to language to learn language. So powerful is this human priming for language that even deaf infants learn sign language in similar developmental patterns to hearing infants.

It is also true that infancy is prime time for learning language, something researchers refer to as a critical period.

Because the infant’s brain is wiring, or making neural connections at an astronomical rate, being exposed to language throughout the day is an essential part of development.

Imagine a child playing peek-a-boo. “In a matter of seconds, thousands of cells in the child’s growing brain respond. Some brain cells are ‘turned on,’ triggered by this particular experience. Many existing connections among brain cells are strengthened. At the same time, new connections are formed, adding a bit more definition and complexity to the intricate circuitry that will largely remain in place for the rest of her life” (“Rethinking the Brain,” by Rima Shore, Families and Work Institute, 1997).

It’s easy to see how we might interpret this as “more is better.” If that brain is wiring and what we do, expose child to, wires it, then we better keep doing it.

It turns out that “what we do” is only part of the equation. How, when and where are also part of an optimal learning environment.

Dr. Rochelle Newman, a cognitive psychologist and professor in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences at the University of Maryland, took a close look at where infants are learning language.

Specifically, she asked how do very young children develop the ability to separate speech from background noise?

To explore this question, Newman invited infant-parent pairs to her lab. Infants sat on a parent’s lap in a small room with no distractions. The parent wore headphones so as not to influence the infant’s responses. Speakers were located to the left and right of the infant, placed in the wall at equal distance from the baby.

The same, unfamiliar female voice was recorded repeatedly speaking either the child’s name or another name. Newman varied the level of the background conversational noise on each tape. The researchers then recorded how long babies paid attention to their names being spoken on the recording.

By 5 months old, significantly more infants listened longer to their own names than to other names, yet only when the background noise was low.

Newman said, “The 5-month-olds could separate the streams of conversation and focus on the voice calling to them if the background was at a level you might find in a romantic restaurant with soft and intimate conversations … But at that age, the kids couldn’t isolate the foreground voice if the noise level nearly doubled — what you might hear in a crowded fast food restaurant.”

Or, I would add, a room with a TV on, a mall, a large room in a child-care center or with toys that make beeps.

Newman’s research team looked at 9-month-olds and found they had similar difficulty separating their own names at the higher background noise.

It wasn’t until 13 months of age that babies found it less difficult to pick out their names amid background noise.

Newman comments that infants are in noisy environments a lot and in order to be able to learn language from others, they need to be able to separate the sound of the person talking to them from the background, which often includes other voices.

While it would be unrealistic and unnatural to have infants in quiet environments all the time, these findings have important implications for the daily environments we do create. Television, radios, computers, and books and toys that talk or make noise are all factors that parents and caregivers need to minimize.

It might be helpful to imagine that quiet restaurant as a benchmark. (And then call a sitter to go out on a date with your partner in parenting. Adults need quiet time, too.)

BE YOUR CHILD’S FIRST MATH TEACHER! – Teach Your Child to Count to 10 – ChildUp Early Learning Game Cards

Source: Poughkeepsie Journal – http://goo.gl/92qZ2