Study: background noise makes it harder for toddlers to learn language

A new study from the US has found that children find it harder to learn new words if they are surrounded by background noise.

Brianna McMillan, who led the University of Wisconsin-Madison study, says that noisy distractions such as TV and radio can affect how children learn. 

“Our study suggests that adults should be aware of the amount of background speech in the environment when they’re interacting with young children,” she said. 

Researchers studied 107 children aged between 22 months and 30 months. 

They used three different experiments to test the theory that background noise could challenge learning. 

During the study, which was published in the Child Development journal, the toddlers were placed in either a quiet or noisy environment and taught names for unfamiliar objects. 

They were then tested to see whether they had successfully learned the new words they’d been introduced to.

In all the experiments the children who were in the quieter environment outperformed their peers from the noisy environment group. 
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“Results suggested experience with the sounds of the words without distracting background noise helps children subsequently map those sounds to meaning,” explained McMillan. 
 
The studies co-author, Jenny Saffran concluded: “Hearing new words in fluent speech without a lot of background noise before trying to learn what objects the new words corresponded to may help very young children master new vocabulary.
 
“But when the environment is noisy, drawing young children’s attention to the sounds of the new word may help them compensate.”
 
Clare Geldard is the director of operations at ‘I Can’, a children’s communications charity. She told the Huffington Post that the results of the study do not surprise her at all. 
 
“We would definitely concur that for young children, any kind of noisy background distraction makes it harder for them to learn.
 
“They are only just learning to channel their attention so having somebody saying words to them alongside a radio or TV is much more difficult,” says Geldard.  
 
“Learning to filter out background noise is a learned skill.” 

Ways to reduce background noise

  • Limit television watching
  • Have designated television time rather than leaving it on all day
  • Don’t leave music on in the background
  • Be mindful of making time to connect and communicate in quiet areas
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