Why Quiet Is Important for Kids' Learning

A mom and her baby girl play together with a toy.
(Image credit: Grekov's/Shutterstock.com)

Toddlers may have a harder time picking up new words if there's background noise around them, like sounds from a TV or a cellphone conversation, a new study suggests.

In the study, children ages 22 months to 30 months weren't able to learn new words in a lab experiment if there was relatively loud background noise when the children first heard the words, the researchers said.

The findings highlight certain challenges that can affect children's learning, they said.

"Modern homes are filled with noisy distractions — such as TV, radio and people talking — that could affect how children learn words at early ages," study co-author Brianna McMillan, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a statement. "Our study suggests that adults should be aware of the amount of background speech in the environment when they're interacting with young children," McMillan said. [Summer Reading: Best Science-y Books for Kids]

In the study, the researchers played either quieter or louder background noise while the children were taught two new words. The children first heard the words used in a sentence, and then were shown images that represented the words. Finally, the children were shown two different images and were asked to look at the image that corresponded to the new word they had learned.

The researchers found that when the background noise was quieter, the children appeared able to learn new words. When the researchers showed the kids two images and asked them to identify the image of the new word, they looked at the correct image more often, indicating that they had learned the new words. But when the background noise was louder, the kids were just as likely to look at the correct image as the incorrect image, suggesting that they were not able to learn the new words.

The results were similar for both older and younger toddlers.

"It appears that while toddlers can contend with moderate levels of background speech in word learning, higher intensities of background speech hinder learning," the researchers said.

But there may be a way to help children learn, even if they are sometimes in noisy environments. In another experiment, the researchers first tried to teach children two new words in a quiet environment by reading the words in a sentence. Then, they showed the children images of the words, to teach the children the meanings of the words, in a noisy environment. The children were still able to learn the new words that they'd first heard in a quiet environment, the study found.

These findings "suggest that providing children with some opportunities to learn in quiet environments may help compensate for the effects of otherwise noisy environments," the researchers wrote.

Still, more studies are needed in real-word environments (rather than laboratory settings) to better understand how children learn language, the researchers said.

The study is published online July 21 in the journal Child Development.

Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.