Improving Language is a Matter of Time

Last week, Be Amazing attended Scientific Learning’s Visionary Conference, featuring professionals who provide Fast ForWord around the country and around the world. (By the way, if you want people to be excited about attending your conference, definitely call it the “Visionary Conference”; who doesn’t want to be visionary?)

Among the features of the conference were presentations by the Scientific Learning’s four founding scientists, including Dr. Paula Tallal. In addition to helping found Scientific Learning, Dr. Tallal is a founder and co-director of the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

Dr. Tallal’s presentation re-capped some of the initial research that led to the development of the Fast ForWord programs, focusing especially on the issue of time as it relates to language. Dr. Tallal’s research takes what we know about timing in language (that very brief changes in speech sounds – measured in the 10s of milliseconds – affect meaning) and examines how deficiencies in rapid auditory processing can inhibit the ability to accurately process speech. 

Dr. Tallal shared some progressive longitudinal studies that looked at babies as young as 6 months old, and measured their rapid auditory processing abilities along with their receptive language abilities at age 2 and 3 and their reading abilities at age 7. 

What the research shows is that children’s receptive language abilities at age 2 and 3 are outstanding predictors of reading success at age 7. Kids who struggle with receptive language skills at 3 are highly likely to struggle with reading by age 7.

The good news is that a program like Fast ForWord attacks the receptive language struggles kids have by developing rapid auditory processing along with other critical cognitive skills like  attention, sequencing, and working memory. Fix the receptive language problems and (with good reading curriculum and instruction) you fix the reading problems.

A couple of other items from Dr. Tallal’s talk about the criticality of timing:

  • What we think of as memory (our ability to recall items, such as a list of words) can be improved by slowing down the input. Put another way, if you speed up the brain’s processing ability (enabling the brain to process faster input), you can improve memory. 
  • Timing is critical in language (the subtle differences in words are very short and require rapid processing to make meaning). But it’s also critical in pragmatic interactions, such as facial expressions and laughter. Laugh on time and you’ve got a good sense of humor. Laugh just a few milliseconds late, and it’s awkward to the point of being off-putting. So developing rapid processing skills is critical for many types of interactions, not just language and reading.

We took a lot of notes at the conference, so we’ll bang out a few more posts in the coming days highlighting some of the more interesting stuff discussed. We may be visionary (well, obviously we are if we attended the “Visionary Conference”), but the folks behind Fast ForWord are geniuses.

UPDATE: Here’s a link to the Journal of Learning Disabilities article that Dr. Tallal described. And because the scientists say it better than we can, here’s the quote we found most compelling:

Language comprehension at 3 years was the best predictor of later language and early reading for both groups. These results support past work suggesting that children with a positive family history of LLI are at greater risk for future language and reading problems through their preschool and early school-age years. Furthermore, language comprehension in the early years is a strong predictor of future language-learning status.

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