Thank you very much. There is a profound predictor of health and wealth that can be determined by three years of age. And that predictor is language. Language is the essence of what it means to be human.
Now, animals may have noises or gestures that they can communicate with, I can assure you my cat can get me up out of the bed at five o’clock in the morning because he is hungry, but human beings are much more adept and much more facile at language.
I can tell you that language in the Oxford Unabridged English Dictionary, there are 600,000 different words that American, that English people can know. Lots of people spoke, speak more than one language. So the ability of humans is enormous, you never really and truly see a chimpanzee or a rhinoceros reading a book, but humans commonly read books, and we understand language.
Babies come into this world acutely programmed to learn all these different words, to learn the essence of language, because language is what makes us human, and quite frankly, language is what makes us survive. There is a huge growth spurt, a huge increase in capacity in the brain by at least a third that occurs in the last part of pregnancy, right before babies come into this world. And I can tell you that babies are hard-wired to learn different languages.
I can tell you that because the important thing about babies is not only that there is the capacity, but how we learn language is from our caretakers. That means mothers and babies have this unique experience. I can tell you from the maternal point of view that I experienced that in my own life.
Now, I’m an obstetrician-gynecologist; I delivered lots and lots and lots of babies, but the experience of delivering somebody else’s baby was completely different than my own pregnancy. Now, I gotta tell you, I came to pregnancy, and I was already a doctor. I’ve known I wanted to be a doctor from age eight. I loved it. I was a really good surgeon. I wasn’t really even sure I wanted children.
And then, this pregnancy occurred – by choice – and all of a sudden, I was acutely aware of my unborn daughter. All of a sudden, this woman that had been interested in the outside world was only concentrated on my pregnant belly. I wasn’t really interested in anything more than ten feet away from me. The evidence of hard-wire is even more profound in babies. What you are looking at is the development of language, because language is the interaction between caretaker and baby.
This experiment from the Harvard Child Development Center is about the importance of the hard-wire that is existing. This is called the “Still Face Experiment.” What happened is the mothers are instructed to turn away and then turn back to the child and have a still face. Watch what happens to the baby. What you’ll see happening is, first, she tries to engage. “Ah-ah,” smiles, coos, points – that’s to elicit a response. Points, then she coos, “Ah, ah, ah,” “ma, ma, ma,” and then she reaches out. This is important, this is hard-wired. And all of a sudden, she starts to get frustrated, nothing is catching attention, there is this screech, “Ahhhhh.” She tries to comfort herself.
And then she looks away, tries to disengage, makes one final, one more attempt to get her mother’s attention. And then she dissolves into hopeless crying. It’s hard-wired. The Still Face Experiments are clear indicators that this is hard-wired.
So what’s the importance? What’s the long-term consequence of this kind of biologic stuff? Why is it important that a mother concentrates on her baby, or that a baby concentrates and demands the attention of its mother? The long-term effect of all this primitive stuff was done in some, I think, some kind of brilliant work by Hart and Risley. And they were experimenters who had been involved in the war on poverty. They’d been involved in the war on poverty, and they said, “You know, there’s a problem here, because we are not really seeing, with these early educational interventions, although they are good, although there are some results, we are really not seeing what we wanted to see.”
So, they said, “Can we look earlier? Is there something that is happening before these babies get to kindergarten, before these babies get to first grade? Is there something happening that is important?” Their work was an extreme, involved, deep observation of family life. They went into the homes of 42 families, and they had an intense observation of those families. They looked at those families an hour a month, every single month, from the time their children were seven months of age until the end of the third year. And what they found, as by the title of my talk, was really not what they expected.
First of all, the children were all well-cared-for. So it wasn’t the changes in the children, the difference in the children had nothing to do with not having the physical needs met. Secondly, it was not about race, it was not about gender. And here’s the key: it was not about money. It wasn’t determined by the number of toys that could be purchased by the parent. It wasn’t determined by the neighborhood they lived in. It wasn’t determined by the size of the house they lived in. It was determined by the interaction of the parents with the child. And the interaction that they saw after three years of observation was that there were 30 million more words that those families that were identified as professional families, 30 million more words that those families, those mamas and daddies, said to their children than the children in poverty.