Words Count.

Words Count brings language environment analysis to Southern Africa, providing invaluable data and insight into how the language development of marginalised children can be accelerated.

The need

Children need lots of quality interaction, verbal engagement and positive messaging if they are to develop to their potential.
The human brain is most receptive to language development between 6 months and 4 years of age, and this early brain development lays the foundation for higher cognitive functions.

Enriching children’s early exposure to language in the home is therefore important, particularly in low income communities. Research has shown that children from low-income families tend to hear fewer words than their better off peers, with less variety. By age 4, the cumulative difference is significant and this can have lifelong implications.

A proper analysis of the language environment of young children in low and middle income countries is needed to help inform the development of effective interventions.

The innovation

Words Count will enable us to access data for the very first time, on the quality of the home language environment of children in South Africa (and the region) and will help researchers determine which interventions are most effective in enriching home language environments for young children.

The project uses latest available technology – in the form of the Language Environment Analysis System (LENA) – to analyse and segment audio data within children’s everyday environments. The system includes a sensitive recording device for capturing the number and type of adult words spoken to and near the child under assessment over the course of a defined period.

Using LENA, we propose establishing the first comprehensive assessment (across projects and countries) of the linguistic environment of young children in Southern Africa, allowing us to determine which interventions have the greatest potential for stimulating early language development, and under what circumstances, thus paving the way for continuous improvement in early language development.

Key insights

On a global scale, language environment analysis provides high-impact data which can lead to meaningful social interventions.
Because the assessment process isn’t invasive, researchers are able to gain a comprehensive and accurate picture of young children’s linguistic environment with as little outside influence as possible.

This kind of objective data offers a transformative means of assessing and guiding caregiver behavior.

The project team

Professor Mark Tomlinson is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Stellenbosch University. His specific interest is in factors that contribute to infant and child development in high adversity contexts, as well as how best to prevent compromised development in these cases.