Language Development: A Two-Way Street
V-Tech Touch and Swipe Baby Phone
The V-Tech Touch and Swipe Baby Phone is an educational toy designed to enhance the language skills of children between the ages of 6 to 36 months. This toy cell phone lights up with bright colors and presents 123s, ABCs, and a few words through simple learning activities. As children push buttons and listen to short phrases, V-Tech claims the children will develop their language skills while responding to the phone’s prompts. However, at the Early Childhood Education Center where I work, the flashing lights and staccato sounds often over stimulate some of the children, and we have found they prefer to play with the phone after the batteries have been removed. At this point, any “conversation” is one-sided, an ineffective method for language development; therefore, I am skeptical of the manufacturer’s claim.
My doubts about this toy’s usefulness for language development, whether in response to abrupt phrases or against silence, are reinforced by the language learning principles discussed in Bornstein, Arterberry, and Lamb’s (2014) book Development in Infancy. Bornstein and his colleagues inform readers that all infants, hearing and non-hearing, begin to babble at about the same age. They also point out that hearing-impaired infants soon cease this behavior, yet the hearing infants continue babbling and eventually form comprehensible words and simple sentences (p. 239). Therefore, the V-Tech phone will not promote an early onset of babbling, as all babies naturally begin around the same age. Furthermore, the toy will not encourage casual two-sided conversation due to its choppy phrases or its tendency to be played with in silent mode. The 2008 Goldstein and Schwade study mentioned in Bornstein et al.’s book emphasizes the interactional aspect of language production and comprehension. For the study, the research team divided mothers into two groups; one group responded in a social manner (smiling, clapping, moving closer to the infant) each time an infant produced a sound; the other group responded to infants’ noises only when instructed to do so, which turned out to be quite randomly. The researchers found that “infants receiving contingent responses increased in their number of speech sounds, and they restructured their babbling, incorporating the patterns of their mothers’ speech” (p. 240). The V-Tech phone responds to a child rather randomly as well, since the limited number of phrases may or may not be activated in a timely fashion and may or may not present relevant responses to the child’s communication.
Wells (1981), author of Learning Through Interaction: Volume 1: Language Development, found similar evidence that language is best developed through unstructured, informal interactions between family members. He points to a child’s caregiver, usually the mother, as the main instigator of language development. The mother’s influence may be due to her sensitive nature in that she is most likely to respond continuously and in a positive manner. Wells’ argument states that “conversation provides the natural context of language development and that the child learns through exploring his world in interaction with other people. The quality of learning is thus seen to depend on what both participants contribute to the interaction, but particularly on the strategies that adults employ to develop and extend children’s contributions” (p. 310). This collaboration between caregiver and child inspired my blog post’s title, Language Development: A Two-Way Street, which indicates both the caregiver and the child must contribute to the language learning process for it to be successful. Wells draws his conclusions from his longitudinal Bristol Study of Language Development. This research study followed 129 children, aged 15-66 months from a variety of backgrounds living in the city of Bristol, over the course of four years. During the time of the study, the researchers recorded spontaneous conversations shared between the child and his or her caregiver every three months. Along with these naturalistic observations, each child completed various linguistic tests. In addition, the parents of the children documented family information when each child reached the age of 3 ½ years. Wells has reported that the children with the most advanced vocabularies and conversational abilities came from homes with warm, involved parents (pp. 5-8). Thus, the toy phone by V-Tech is not a solid language-teaching tool. A caregiver who cheerfully and regularly responds to a child’s individuality, emotive tone, and interests remains the best language teacher.
V-Tech claims its Touch and Swipe Baby Phone promotes language development. Research and personal observation say otherwise. A child left alone with the phone does not feel inspired to carry on an extended conversation, as the much desired human-interaction aspect is lacking. Young children are more apt to hold a meaningful conversation with a trusted caregiver who provides sought after intellectual and emotional support. Yet when the phone is used as a conversation piece between a child and caregiver, the toy’s value increases. For example, when a caregiver questions a child about his or her activity with the phone, face-to-face, free-flowing conversation, and thus language development, occurs. Clearly, the toy phone is most beneficial when a child and caregiver play with it together.
With its lights and sounds, the V-Tech Touch and Swipe Baby Phone provides fun for some children but anxiety for others. The advertised claim that it enhances early language development is exaggerated. The phone’s educational qualities surface when a child and caregiver both play with the toy. The phone by itself does not encourage conversation; rather, the caring relationship, one-on-one interaction, and shared comments between a child and caregiver during play with the phone serve as the catalyst for language development. Sensitive, relevant responses to a child’s vocalizations and speech challenge their curiosity and inspire their participation in the exciting realm of language development.
Bornstein, M.H., Arterberry, M.E., Lamb, M.E. (2014). Development in Infancy. New York, NY: Psychology Press
V-Tech Touch and Swipe Baby Phone: https://www.vtechkids.com/product/detail/13336/Touch_and_Swipe_Baby_Phone
Wells, G. (1981). Learning Through Interaction: Volume 1: Language Development. New York, NY: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.