Language development in infancy is influenced differently by well-educated mothers and fathers, even though they read to their young toddlers (1 to 2 years old) in broadly similar ways.

Well-educated mothers and fathers influence language development in their young toddlers (1 to 2 years old) differently, even though they read to the children in broadly similar ways.

Austrian researchers who study language development in infancy worked with 100 mother-father-child families, separately observing how the mother and father read the same book to their toddlers. They identified and measured five modes of parental behaviour during a 5½ minute parent-child interactive session with a farm animal picture book:

  • Describing-Commenting
    • For example, the parent says, “There are bugs all over the grass” or “The rabbit hops down the path.”
  • Pointing-Labelling
    • For example, the parent says, “Look, these are pigs!” or “A butterfly!”
  • Inquiring-Clarifying
    • For example, the parent says, “Is this a cat?” or “What does the pig say?”
  • Expanding-Elaborating
    • For example, the parent says, “Yes, a pear. You just ate a pear 20 minutes ago” or “I think this bowl looks like grandma’s bowl.”
  • Repeating-Imitating
    • The parent repeats what the child says.

The first difference the researchers found involved a link that was found for fathers but not for mothers between more “repeating/imitating” and the child’s subsequent ability to express words. Why this difference in language development occurs needs further exploration. But the researchers postulate that fathers may tend to interact more playfully with their children, aiming to evoke a reply by repeating and imitating, whilst mothers tend to use repeating and imitating indirectly to correct the child’s utterances, in ways that do not require a verbal response from the child.

Conversely, when mothers do more “inquiring/clarifying”, children show enhanced language development. But when fathers do the same thing, their children are likely to show less ability to comprehend. The researchers postulate that mothers may be more likely to follow their children’s lead rather than challenge their limits, resulting in more improvement in the children’s comprehension.

When mothers do more “pointing/labelling”, children’s language development proceeds more strongly, but there is no such link for fathers. The researchers postulate that fathers may tend to do this activity more quickly—perhaps too quickly for the children properly to comprehend what is being pointed out or labelled.

The researchers also looked at factors that influenced how the mothers and fathers communicated with their toddlers during the reading activity. They measured the parent-child attachment security for each parent-child pair as well as the educational status of each parent. Again, they found significant differences between mothers and fathers.

The father’s education influences children’s language development in a way that mother’s education does not, suggesting a social influence on fathers’ parenting that is different from mothers’. If a father has college/university education:

  • His toddler is more likely to show more advanced language comprehension.
  • His child is more likely to display stronger attachment security with him.
  • His own mode of communicating is likely to be more proactive – more pointing/labelling and more describing/commenting. (It should be noted that for both parents, higher education is linked to a greater quantity of reading with the child.)

Mothers’ education does not influence their interaction with their children in these ways. For mothers, the interaction seems to be driven more by the attachment relationship with their children. The quality of mother-toddler attachment is associated with more expanding/elaborating, pointing/labelling and inquiring/clarifying on the mothers’ part. This does not hold for fathers. Mothers and fathers are similar, however, in that stronger attachment is linked to a greater extent of reading with a child and stronger development of language comprehension.

This is one of the first studies that has attempted to disentangle the influences of mothers and fathers on language development in infancy and to measure fathers’ influence separately from mothers’.

Asked by the Child & Family Blog about the practical implications of their study for infant language development, the researchers suggested that parents should see one-to-one reading with a young child more as a relationship experience than a teaching one. It’s important to respond to children’s contributions during reading by picking up their ideas and either reacting in a playful way to evoke a verbal response or more gently to build comprehension.

Header photo: Hogan. Creative Commons.