Illustration by Sydney Rae Hass for TIME
September 21, 2015 3:59 PM EDT

In childhood, each age tends to mark a different language acquisition milestone—like crying for specific kinds of reasons at the end of three months and paying attention to music at the end of six months. Still, even though children learn to speak at their own pace, researchers are continuing to discover new things about how that happens. Here’s what the latest research shows when it comes to teaching children to talk.

  • Context is important for learning new words. A new study published Sept. 21 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) looked at audio and video recordings of a child’s daily life at their home from ages nine months to 24 months. The goal was to better understand what factors contribute to which words a child learns. They found that distinctiveness and context were more predictive than factors like repetition. The researchers found that the child’s earliest words were consistently used by their caregiver in distinct places, times of day and topics of conversation—like the word “breakfast.” “Across words and word categories, those words that were experienced in more distinctive contexts were produced earlier,” the study authors write.
  • Reading to your child activates important language parts of their brain. In a small April 2015 study, researchers asked parents to fill out a questionnaire that asked them about their child-rearing habits, including how often they read to their children. The researchers then performed brain scans on the children while they listened to stories and found that children who read at home had more activation in areas of the brain associated with visual imagery and understanding language meaning. “For parents, it adds credence to the idea of reading with kids,” study author John S. Hutton, a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, told TIME. “Getting a peek into the brain, there seem to be some differences there that are pretty exciting.”
  • Sound training may someday be a way to help babies learn to speak. A 2014 study found that playing a series of sounds when babies are four months old could help speed up the way they process language and improve their linguistic skills as they age. How babies respond to certain sounds could also predict which babies had trouble with language. In the study, the researchers took a group of babies, gave them skull caps with electronic sensors, placed them in front of a screen and played sounds for them that changed very slightly in tone or frequency. Whenever a change occurred, a small video in the corner of a screen popped up. The goal was to train the babies that the sound was a signal that something important was happening—in this case, that they would subsequently see a video. Another group of babies also listened to the sounds but were not video trained, and a control group of babies heard no sounds. The researchers found that the babies that were trained to pay attention to changes in sounds were better able to map language sounds later in life when they started to make sounds. The main researcher, neuroscientist April Benasich of Rutgers University, is developing her test into a toy parents can use to “train” their babies.
  • Chatting with preemies can help them develop expressions. In a February 2014 study, researchers found that premature babies in neonatal intensive care units (NICU) were more expressive when their mothers spoke to them and tried to engage them in conversation, compared to babies whose mothers stroked them or babies who were around nurses who talked around them but did not address them directly. For every 100-word increase that adults spoke to the preterm babies, the researchers discovered a two-point increase in their language scores at 18 months and a half-point increase in their expressive communication score.
  • Learning two languages may be better than one. Research suggests it is easier to learn languages as a child, and a growing body of research also suggests that learning more than one language can be good for the brain. In a 2013 TIME magazine story about the benefits of being bilingual, the multilingual brain was found to be “nimbler, quicker, better able to deal with ambiguities, resolve conflicts and even resist Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia longer.” The research has also paved the way for more language immersion programs in schools. The data suggest that a bilingual brain isn’t necessarily smarter, but it may be more flexible. Other research, like a 2014 study published in the journal Annals of Neurology, reports that adopting a second language, even later in life, can benefit the brain in ways like improving memory or intellectual skills.
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