Dana Suskind, MD, is founder and director of the TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health and a Professor of Surgery and Pediatrics at the University of Chicago. In her book Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain, she shares powerful anecdotes of the families she has worked with and translates the latest language and neuroscience research for a wider audience. Here Dr. Dana Suskind talks about the origins of the book, closing the language gap, and why we all need to “spread the words.”
Why did you write this book?
What’s really interesting is back in 2013 all of a sudden there was a lot of momentum around the idea of closing the 30-million-word gap, but there was a superficial interpretation of the power of parent talk. I really wanted this book to help explain the science in a much deeper way, really connecting it to early brain development. It’s not just quantity, it’s not just quality; parent talk is really the lens into the whole parent-child relationship, because most of what we do is through language.
What impact do you hope the book will have?
The foundation of the entire program that I run is this idea that if we can get the powerful message out about the power of parent talk in building children’s brains, we can impact at a population level how people think. While most of our work is related to developing curriculum and intervention and working with LENA, there’s always the larger mission of getting this idea out. This book is not about the program that I run — it’s really about the important science that’s out there and the amazing work that people are doing.
How did researching the book impact your thinking on the language gap?
It really bolstered my belief that if we’re going to try to give a child a chance at reaching their potential, it is only through the 0-3 period and the power of language that we’re going to get to that point. The science of brain development is pretty clear.
Whom do you see as the audience for this book?
The book has many audiences, and obviously there’s the audience of the collaborators we work with, but my real hope is to get these ideas of the importance of early childhood, the power of parent talk, and an understanding of the science into the broader population.
How does LENA’s phrase “Parents have the Power” align with your message and your work?
When you hear phrases like “parents have the power,” at some level it sounds like a platitude; but at the most fundamental scientific level, it is absolutely the truth. And unless parents understand it, society understands it, and policy makers understand it, we’re never going to be able to really change the trajectory of so many of the children in this country.
Do you think using LENA as a feedback tool enables parents to have more power?
There’s something very intuitive about the idea of closing the 30-million-word gap and language providing the power, but operationalizing it effectively is not so easy. It’s just like healthy eating and exercising — they don’t always happen just by telling people that they need a scale or a pedometer. In the same way, LENA has allowed people in the field and families to not only understand where they are from a language input standpoint, but really reflect on it and goal set and improve their children’s language environments. It’s a perfect example of how powerful technology can be. So much of the technology that we see out there is a competition for language interaction and attention to our children, but this is a positive example of technology helping families be more interactive.
Any parting thoughts?
Really, that people should “spread the words.” I want to get this message into the general population, and the only way is if people spread it beyond our world.