Background Noise May Hurt Toddlers’ Ability to Learn Words Noisy background environments may hinder early language learning, a new study finds. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin–Madison measured toddlers’ ability to learn new words against competing background noise, finding that complex auditory conditions may have a negative effect. “Modern homes are filled with noisy distractions such as TV, radio ... Research in Brief
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Research in Brief  |   October 01, 2016
Background Noise May Hurt Toddlers’ Ability to Learn Words
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Hearing & Speech Perception / Acoustics / Research in Brief
Research in Brief   |   October 01, 2016
Background Noise May Hurt Toddlers’ Ability to Learn Words
The ASHA Leader, October 2016, Vol. 21, 12. doi:10.1044/leader.RIB1.21102016.12
The ASHA Leader, October 2016, Vol. 21, 12. doi:10.1044/leader.RIB1.21102016.12
Noisy background environments may hinder early language learning, a new study finds.
Scientists at the University of Wisconsin–Madison measured toddlers’ ability to learn new words against competing background noise, finding that complex auditory conditions may have a negative effect.
“Modern homes are filled with noisy distractions such as TV, radio and people talking that could affect how children learn words at early ages,” says lead author Brianna McMillan, a psychology doctoral student at Wisconsin. “Our study suggests that adults should be aware of the amount of background speech in the environment when they’re interacting with young children.”
The study, which appears in the journal Child Development, comprised three experiments. The first two measured toddlers’ success in recognizing unfamiliar objects that were labeled after they had listened to sentences including the names of the novel objects.
Each of the two experiments involved a group of 40 toddlers—ages 22 to 24 months old in the first study and 28 to 30 months old in the second. Only the participants who were exposed to the quieter background noise were able to learn the words; the effect was the same for both age groups.

“Hearing new words in fluent speech without a lot of background noise before trying to learn what objects the new words correspond to may help very young children master new vocabulary.”

In the third experiment, researchers presented two new words through sentences read aloud to 26 toddlers (ages 27 to 30 months) in a quiet environment. They were then taught object-label pairings for those two words and two additional new words while in the same louder background environment used in the first two experiments. The toddlers were able to learn only the words they had first heard in the quiet environment.
“Hearing new words in fluent speech without a lot of background noise before trying to learn what objects the new words correspond to may help very young children master new vocabulary,” says co-author Jenny Saffran, professor in Wisconsin’s Department of Psychology and princiipal investigator in the university’s Infant Learning Lab. “But when the environment is noisy, drawing young children’s attention to the sounds of the new word may help them compensate.”
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October 2016
Volume 21, Issue 10