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Brianna McMillan, doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, led research that revealed background noise can hinder young children's ability to learn new words. (Source: Tribune News Service) Photo credit: MCT & Tribune News Service

Without even thinking, most people will turn on music, TV or talk-radio to fill the silence when they’re at home. According to new research however, this background noise may be negatively affecting tiny tots — more specifically, their ability to learn new words.

The research was led by Brianna McMillan, a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and published in the journal “Child Development.”

Previous studies about the effect of noise on children’s cognitive function have only been done in quiet settings. McMillan and her colleagues wanted to conduct their research in an environment that mimicked a noisy environment, such as school or home, that a child may be in.

“Modern homes are filled with noisy distractions such as TV, radio and people talking that could affect how children learn words at early ages,” McMillan said.

There were 106 toddlers, ages 22 to 30 months, used in the study. Each toddler participated in three different experiments in order to teach them new words.

The toddler listened to a sentence with new words, was taught which word corresponded to which object and then was tested by the researchers to see what words he or she was able to remember.

In the first experiment, 40 toddlers were taught new words. Some were taught with loud background noise while others were taught with quiet background noise. After being taught the words, the children were then asked to recall them.

The second experiment again used 40 toddlers. However, this time they were older than those in the first experiment by about 4 months. Researchers were curious if those that were slightly older would learn better.

Results from both the first and second experiments showed that only those toddlers who were placed with quiet background noise while learning the new words had actually learned them, no matter their age.

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

The last experiment consisted of showing older toddlers two words in a quiet place. After this, toddlers were shown a total of four words — two they had just been taught in a quiet place and two that were brand new in a noisy place.

Researchers took another group of children and taught them all four new words in a noisy place.

The results showed that only the toddlers that were first taught the words in a quiet place were able to learn them.

“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,” Jenny Saffran, a professor at the University who co-authored the study, said. “But when the environment is noisy, drawing young children’s attention to the sounds of the new word may help them concentrate.”

Researchers do understand that children are not often in places that are completely silent, but they believe that parents, educators and caregivers may find success when they reduce background noise when teaching.

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