Story at a glance

  • New devices can be worn by babies and toddlers to count the number of words they are exposed to each day.
  • Research suggests that word counts and exposure to adult conversations can boost cognitive development during the formative years.
  • Early results are promising, though more research is needed.

Since it was founded in 2007, Fitbit has become an industry powerhouse for its line of step and exercise trackers designed to keep people active. Now a similar device could help parents do a better job of teaching their children to communicate. 

Known as talk or word pedometers, these devices are made to be worn by babies and toddlers. They are situated inside a small vest that keeps the tracker positioned on the baby’s chest, not to measure steps or stairs, of course, but to log words, sentences and entire conversations spoken to or overheard by the child.

Research suggests that things like word counts and exposure to adult conversations can boost cognitive development during the formative years, says Kenneth Wong, a professor and director of the Urban Education Institute at Brown University. 

And while scientists have suspected as much for several decades now, they’ve never really been able to study the phenomenon in an unbiased way. In other words, the only way to measure conversations in a child’s home is for a scientist to sit and listen and take notes — an act that fundamentally changes the experience for everyone involved. (Think about how you might interact with or even discipline your children differently if you have company.) 

But the word pedometers provide a less intrusive way to record some of the same information, says Wong. 

Counting words

Of course, putting a listening device on your baby sounds a little creepy. But Wong assures us that the loggers are designed to simply record things like word counts and “conversational terms,” such as when a new topic is introduced, rather than serve as word-for-word recordings of your daily life. Also, all identifying information, such as names, are stripped from the data before ever reaching a researcher such as himself. This gives scientists reams of information that can be cross-referenced against demographic information, such as income, level of education, race and so on, which allows them to better study the effects of language on early childhood development. 

The word pedometers are also not designed to be used alone. In Providence, R.I., a program called Providence Talks incorporated the devices as part of a larger early intervention program designed to help lower-income families who volunteered to take place in the pilot. Wong studied the effects of that program and says that the early indications are that it has had a positive impact on the kids, many of whom are just now entering kindergarten. 

Similar programs are now being launched in Detroit; Birmingham, Ala.; Hartford, Conn.; Louisville, Ky.; and Virginia Beach, Va., thanks to a $12 million donation from Bloomberg Philanthropies

Potential pitfalls?

But not everybody is singing the word pedometers’ praises. 

“We have this fixation now on quantifying everything and getting instant feedback,” says Anne Fernald, professor emerita at Stanford University. 

For starters, Fernald says that there’s a fundamental difference between counting steps and counting language. 

“A step is a step. Maybe if it’s up a stair it burns a little more energy, but words are so different from that. Words are rich and different and connected in different ways,” she says. “The sheer count of words as if they were pennies in a piggy bank is really misleading.”

For instance, Fernald says if your therapist told you to talk to your partner twice as much to improve your marriage, you could accomplish that goal in a variety of ways. You could spend those words yelling; you could ramble on about topics your partner has no interest in; or you could engage with them in a way that is meaningful. 

It’s also not clear if the word pedometers are responsible for the improvements some of these early studies are seeing or it's due to the other interventions taking place in conjunction with the presence of the loggers. After all, says Fernald, parents may be further inclined to talk to their children more if they see them wearing the pedometer in the same way that their behavior would be influenced by having an observer sitting in their living room. 

All together, Fernald says it’s possible that programs like the ones piloted in Providence do provide help for the low-income families who participate. However, she worries about a trend toward quantity over quality communication. Fernald says one mother recently told her with pride that she came home every night after work and read the real estate ads she’d written that day to her baby, since she heard how important it was to get those words in. 

“We have this fixation now on quantifying everything and getting instant feedback,” says Fernald. “I just worry about the push to get bigger numbers. You could have these helicopter parents speaking a barrage of words, and that is really worrisome.”

Published on Nov 21, 2019