Last summer, as my baby grandson and I strolled through the same neighborhood his father and I had strolled through 30 years earlier, I saw that something vital had changed. Back then, adults pushing babies in strollers talked with those babies about whatever came across their path. But these days, most adults engage instead in one-sided conversations on their cellphones, or else text in complete silence.
As a linguist, I wondered whether the time adults spend with their mobile devices might be affecting the way children learn language. Since the technology hasn’t been ubiquitous for long, research on this question is scarce. But other research on the effects of adult-child conversation makes a strong case for putting cellphones away when you’re around children.
For a study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2009, researchers outfitted young children with small digital recorders, which captured the language each child heard and produced. The researchers could then identify and count the two-sided exchanges, or conversational “turns,” between children and adults. Subjects were also tested on a range of linguistic measures, from the earliest preverbal behaviors, to nascent phonology and grammar skills, to preliteracy and the integration of complex parts of language.