Parents stumbling over words may help kids learn to speak

By Carrie Johnson Weimar • Published: July 6th, 2011
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Busy parents know it’s sometimes hard to speak eloquently when faced with a barrage of questions from a toddler. Now, new research suggests that tripping over your words might actually help your child learn to speak.

The um’s and er’s we typically strive to avoid create natural pauses that allow children to absorb what’s been said. If speech is too fluent, children might miss important words because they are struggling to understand what they have already been told.

The pauses also draw attention to a difficult word coming up. For example, imagine walking through the zoo with a curious two-year-old. When you say, ‘Look at the, uh, rhinoceros,’ fumbling for the word indicates you are about to teach something new, which helps kids understand and learn the new word.

To test the theory, researchers from the University of Rochester studied three groups of children between the ages of eighteen months and thirty months. Each child sat on a parent’s lap in front of a monitor with an eye-tracking device. Two images would flash on the screen. One object was familiar, such as a ball or a book. The other was made-up and was given a fake name such as gorp or dax. Think Dr. Seuss. A recorded voice talked about the objects. Whenever the speaker stumbled and said ‘Uh,’ almost three-fourths of the children automatically looked at the unfamiliar object.

There’s no need to start stumbling over your speech with an infant, however. The results were only significant with children ages two or older.

So, um, don’t stress out about how to talk to a child. This study reinforces previous research that shows that it’s not, um, the quality of the talk that matters when it comes to a child’s development. It’s the, er, quantity.