The effect of noise on infants' and children's language understanding

Children learn language from hearing it around them, but much of the language they hear directed to themselves and others occurs in noisy or multi-talker environments. The language learning systems of the brain evolved in what were presumably far quieter ambient environments than present-day settings, where noise from traffic, television, and electronic devices are ubiquitous.  Recent work suggests that children are affected by background noise much more than are adults, limiting the extent to which they can benefit from the language input they receive, and leading to a catch-22:  young children who are still trying to learn language have a greater need for understanding speech in noise, but are simultaneously less equipped to do so. Yet the underlying reason for these age-related differences remains unclear, as is the effect that such differences actually have on learning.  We are examining  limitations of children’s ability to understand and learn from spoken language in the context of other noise; this will have vital implications for child-rearing practices, and for understanding potential causes for language delay.

Rochelle Newman, Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences