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How talking to children can help them reach their full potential

Ear implant surgeon recommends speaking to children, no matter how good their hearing

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 September, 2015, 6:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 September, 2015, 6:01am

Maybe you've seen those videos of children hearing for the first time, breaking into spontaneous, joyful grins, usually at the sound of their mother's voice.

It's impossible to keep your composure, filled as they are with such innocent, raw emotion.

Dana Suskind makes those moments happen. As a cochlear implant surgeon at the University of Chicago's Comer Children's Hospital, she gives children the gift of sound. In one day she forever changes the trajectory of their lives in just about every way you can imagine - socially, emotionally, academically - opening to them a new world of language and relationships, pursuits and occupations.

But surgery is only the first step toward seizing that new world. During follow-up visits with some of her first patients, Suskind began noticing troubling disparities in the way different implant recipients were talking, reading and relating to language.

"The problems I saw bothered me tremendously," she writes in her new book, Thirty Million Words: Building a Child's Brain - Tune In, Talk More, Take Turns, released in September. "Lagging responses to hearing first sound, to responding to their names, slowness in saying a first word or reading a first book."

She discovered, through months of child development research and visits with her patients, that the differences all came down to parent talk. Children whose parents or primary caretaker spoke to them, sang to them, read to them, asked them frequent questions latched onto language and soared.

Suskind's book follows her path from surgeon to social scientist, as she launched the Thirty Million Words Initiative, aimed at harnessing parent talk to close the achievement gap for all children - those who are born hearing and those who are not.

It's part call to action, part research project and part parenting manual.

"It's really an awesome thing that nature was so kind," Suskind said as we sat in her Hyde Park home. "You don't need a master's degree to make your child smart. You just need to talk to them."

"Thirty Million Words" refers to how many more words children from higher socioeconomic households are exposed to by age three, as compared with their lower socioeconomic peers.

Up to 85 per cent of brain development happens by age three, Suskind notes, and the language component shapes a person's lifelong literacy and maths proficiency, self-regulating skills, ability to empathise and everything in between.

You don't need a master's degree to make your child smart. You just need to talk to them
Dana Suskind, cochlear implant surgeon

It's that huge.

"If the most profound mysteries of the brain are still to be discovered, that truth has already been revealed," she writes. "And it shows you how smart the brain really is because, in absolute evolutionary brilliance, it harnesses a plentiful, natural resource as the key catalyst for its own development. The process is so simple and hidden that you aren't even aware that it's happening … but a caregiver's language is the essential resource of every country, every culture, every person, extending into every crevice of who we are, what we can do and how we behave."

At ages 10, 13 and 16, Suskind's children are well past the infancy stage, but she said her work makes her more mindful about the way she talks to all children.

"When I see little babies now, it changes how I interact with them," she said. "I'm a paediatric surgeon, so I get to hug babies all the time. I look into their eyes, and I can almost see the neurons connecting. They blow me away.

"If everyone could have that same feeling, that same awe of the potential for babies - all the world's babies - we'd understand that investment in children, investment in parents, it's the only way we're going to allow all children to reach their genetic potential."

Tribune News Service