Sometimes it seems like young children are an endless source of noise! Yet children are not only the producers of noise, they also suffer from it. In our field, we often think of the risks of noise as being that of hearing damage… but there is another form of noise risk that we often overlook: its impact on language acquisition.
“…infants and young children are affected by noise far more than are older children and adults, particularly when the background noise is that of other people talking.”
Children spend a surprising amount of time in noisy environments; schools and daycares are frequently noisy, and many homes have a TV or the radio on most of the waking hours. Recent work from UMD and other labs suggests that infants and young children are affected by noise far more than are older children and adults, particularly when the background noise is that of other people talking. They have more difficulty distinguishing syllables from one another, recognizing their own name, and identifying known words. They also struggle to learn new words in background noise. Even when noise is not so loud that it makes speech inaudible, it could still impair children’s ability to recognize it and learn from it. It could do so either by causing distraction or attention difficulties, or by making listening particularly taxing (using up cognitive resources that would then not be available for learning).
“…children growing up in different environments likely experience different amounts and types of noise; thus, differences in noise exposure could potentially contribute to disparities in school readiness.”
Perhaps of greater concern, children growing up in different environments likely experience different amounts and types of noise; thus, differences in noise exposure could potentially contribute to disparities in school readiness. Educating parents about the impact of noise in their children’s environment is something we need to consider as part of our role as clinicians – and as researchers, exploring how different types and levels of noise may impact young children’s learning is a critical need.
Want more information? Look for our publication “Influences of background noise on infants and children” in Current Directions in Psychological Science by Erickson, L.C. & Newman, R.S. later this year.
Some additional relevant references:
Evans, G. W., Gonnella, C., Marcynyszyn, L. A., Gentile, L., & Salpekar, N. (2005). The role of chaos in poverty and children’s socioemotional adjustment. Psychological Science, 16(7), 560–565.
Manlove, E. E., Frank, T., & Vernon-Feagans, L. (2001). Why should we care about noise in classrooms and child care settings? Child & Youth Care Forum, 30(1), 55–64.
McMillan, B., & Saffran, J. R. (2016). Learning in complex environments: The effects of background speech on early word Learning. Child Development.
Newman, R.S. (2009). Infants’ listening in multitalker environments: Effect of the number of background talkers. Attention, Perception, and Psychophysics, 71(4), 822–836
Picard, M. (2004). Characteristics of the noise, reverberation time and speech-to-noise ratios found in day-care centers. Canadian Acoustics, 32(3), 30–31.
Polka, L., Rvachew, S., & Molnar, M. (2008). Speech perception by 6- to 8-month-olds in the presence of distracting sounds. Infancy, 13(5), 421–439
Rochelle Newman is Chair of the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences, as well as Associate Director of the Maryland Language Science Center. She helped found the UMD Infant & Child Studies Consortium and the University of Maryland Autism Research Consortium. She is interested in how the brain recognizes words from fluent speech, especially in the context of noise, and how this ability changes with development.