Thirty Million Words

I’m pretty sure that, when I’m walking through the grocery store with my five-month-old strapped to my chest, people think I’m a little crazy. Why? Because I carry on a nearly constant conversation with a little person whose only response might be a loud and emphatic: “Waaa boo BOOO!”

We talk about the smells (pungent fish, sweet oranges) and the colors (yellow bananas, green poblanos) and the textures (prickly pineapple, tickly cilantro). We identify the animals from which the meats are derived (chicken breasts: cluck cluck cluck).

I was a foreign languages major in college, and I vividly remember learning a new language (I talked a little about my experience learning French in this blog post). I know that the one thing that helped me the most was that my fabulous host family spoke with me (well, at me, at first) constantly in French. Well before I felt comfortable speaking conversationally in French, I began to understand what they were saying to me. Individual words became more distinguishable. Vocabulary became more familiar. Sentence structure started making sense. It was clicking.

So, from day one, I’ve been talking to my daughter with this in mind. I have always assumed that language would start clicking well before she could verbally communicate. And several months ago, she already started showing me that this is true (for example, when she began giving high fives on command or when she started looking around the room when her daddy would say, “Where’s Mommy?”).   

This book reinforces all my crazy grocery store conversations. 

30-million-cover-hi-rezThirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain

Dana Suskind, M.D.
Published September 8, 2015
320 pages (hardcover)

What it’s about: Dr. Dana Suskind started the Thirty Million Words initiative ( The initiative’s name (and the book’s title) is a reference to the results of a study performed in 1982 by two social scientists, Betty Hart and Todd Risley. They studied forty-two families (thirteen that they deemed high socioeconomic families, ten middle, thirteen low, and six welfare), following children from nine months to three years: “Once each month, during those three years, for one hour each session, a study observer audiotaped and took notes, recording everything ‘done by the children, to them, and around them.’” And here are the results:


Their finding: “With few exceptions, the more parents talked to their children, the faster the children’s vocabularies [grew] and the higher the children’s I.Q. test scores at age three and later.” Furthermore, they “saw powerful dampening effects on development when [a child’s interaction with a parent] began with a parent-initiated imperative: ‘Don’t’ ‘Stop’ ‘Quit that.’”

Suskind’s book is about the results of the Hart-Risley study (the quantity and quality of words a child hears from birth to three years can be “linked to the predictable stark disparities in ultimate educational achievement”), the “power of parent talk,” and her Thirty Million Words initiative, which focuses on closing the achievement gap by encouraging all parents to use the “Three Ts”: 1) “Tune in” (“making a conscious effort to notice what a baby or child is focused on, then, when it’s appropriate, talking with the child about it”), 2) “Talk more,” and 3) “Take turns.”

She talks about the quality of speech that is most important and effective (like math talk, spontaneous banter, and process-based praise). She talks about why limiting screen time during the early years is important. And she provides lots of fun and interesting factoids and stats from social-science studies.

Why I read it: As I was browsing the board-book section of my fantastic local independent bookseller, Little Shop of Stories, I happened upon a display with an employee’s recommendation for this book. I flipped through the book briefly and realized that this book is right in my wheelhouse. I’m a stay-at-home mom to a five-month-old. It’s my job, and I take it very seriously. I do everything in my power to set her up for success (while walking the fine line of trying my best to refrain from being a Tiger Mother). Plus, I’m a former elementary school teacher, so I know how important early childhood education is. How could I not read this book?!

Rating: 3.5/5

Despite the fact that this is a non-fiction book filled with statistics, it is not dry. It’s quick reading with lots of fascinating information backed by scientific studies. Allow me to give you a sampling of some of the interesting tidbits:

  • “Imaging of babies’ brains shows that even before they say their first words, they are mentally practicing responding, trying to figure out how to create the motor movements necessary to articulate the words of their language.”
  • “The most important component in brain development is the relationship between the baby and his or her caretaker, which includes the ambiance of the language environment.” Suskind sites the “Still Face Experiment” conducted by Professor Edward Tronick of the University of Massachusetts. Take a gander:

  • “An infant’s brain, at the height of neuroplasticity, can distinguish the sound of every language . . . [b]ut it is not a skill that lasts forever. Similar to the brain’s eventual pruning of synapses that are not used or are underused, the unlimited potential for hearing and uttering every possible sound from any language begins being trimmed away very early, giving us heightened ability to utilize our own language but preventing easy access to the sounds of those we don’t use.” Patricia Kuhl did research with Japanese babies to see if they could distinguish between the English “r” and “l” sounds (which do not exist in Japanese). “At seven months of age [. . .], the babies could differentiate between the English ‘r’ and ‘l’ with absolutely no difficulty. On her return three months later, the ability had disappeared.”
  • On person-based v. process-based praise: “In Professor [Carol] Dweck’s study, 128 fifth graders were given a puzzle to complete. After finishing, some children were praised for being smart, others for working hard. The children were then given the choice of a second task, one more difficult, but from which they ‘would learn a lot,’ or one similar to the first. Sixty-seven percent of the kids called ‘smart’ chose the easy task; 92 percent of those praised for working hard chose the more difficult task.”

The book is packed with great stuff like this. Unfortunately (and you can probably tell from the sampling above), the book is not well written. It is poorly organized. And there is way too much tangential information about Suskind’s work as a pediatric cochlear implant surgeon (look, I am certain that her work is super interesting—she gets to give kids’ the ability to hear! That said, if I wanted to read a book about cochlear implants, I would).

Bottom-line: this book isn’t going to win any writing awards, and it is not successful as a social panacea (a how-to book for closing the achievement gap) as Suskind intends, BUT it is great for parents of very young children. It is helpful in reinforcing certain behaviors and reminding you how your actions can impact your child’s future. It cites a ton of really fascinating studies. It has some very interesting statistics. It gives great examples of helpful versus non-helpful speech.

If you have a kid under three, you should check out this book. If you have a kid under three AND you’re committed to closing the achievement gap (I’m looking at you, all my Teach for America friends), you should pick up this book immediately.

Reviews of these books are coming soon:

  • The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George (a LibraryReads Favorite of the Favorites)
  • Everybody Rise by Stephanie Clifford (a LibraryReads List selection for August 2015, one of Entertainment Weekly’s Summer Must List books)
  • So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (an Amazon Best Book of the Month for April 2015; an Indie Next List pick for April 2015)

2 thoughts on “Thirty Million Words

  1. Super interesting! I too am that mom talking to my baby in the grocery store, on the bus, at the park. It’s so cool to watch their understanding grow. My daughter only has a couple of words so far but she can point to things in books when we say their names and she can find her favourite toys when we ask her where they are. I’ll have to read this one to find out what more we can be doing!

    • It’s amazing how much my little one understands, despite the fact that she can only say “mama,” “daddy,” and “hi.” Would love to hear your thoughts on this book if you end up reading it!

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