CHICAGO – Brittany Manning is a Ph.D. student studying how children learn to speak. She is also a mother, wondering how masks might affect her infant daughter’s ability to learn language.
“I’ve been having a lot of these conversations with a lot of moms,” said the Northwestern grad student. “A lot of moms are concerned.”
Manning and other parents are not alone. Speech therapists and those who work with children have been closely monitoring throughout the past year the effect of children learning to form words while living in a world where most adults near them have their mouths covered by masks.
“We know that kids pay attention to the mouth of the person talking with them,” said Elizabeth Norton, an assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders at Northwestern University.
First, the good news. There are many prepandemic examples of children who cannot see faces who learn to speak just fine. For example, in a home where a mother might often wear a face covering, or for children who are blind.
“Kids are crazy resilient, and the brain is really built to learn language,” Norton said. “Most kids will probably be pretty OK, but we’re not going to know for a while.”
Norton and her colleagues have been studying how the pandemic generally is affecting kids’ language development, and if that changes for children already struggling with learning to talk or who come from families who have to manage COVID-19 more, like essential workers or those supervising remote learning.
So far Norton suspects children who may be most affected are those learning two languages — which adds an additional layer to learning — or with parents who are essential workers. For other children, the last year might have meant more time at home with their parents and more opportunities to converse with their family.
Another issue with masks is acoustics, Norton said.
“It’s a little bit harder to hear speech through a mask,” she said. So in general, people should remember to speak a little clearer, and a little louder.
Seeing mouths make words is part of how children learn to speak, but it isn’t the only way; they also take in language through sound and listening to conversations. Infants are naturally inclined to imitate other people, for example sticking their tongue out if an adult sticks their tongue out.
“Babies come prewired, very ready to start imitating their caregiver,” Norton said. “It’s adorable. So babies are very good at recognizing facial expression.”
For learning language, “sometimes the shape of your mouth can help you tell apart two sounds that sound similar,” Norton added. For children with hearing loss, for example, this can help. “They’re just working a touch harder to figure out exactly what sounds are coming out. The shape of the mouth can be an extra clue.”
Manning thinks many parents might feel like they are in an experiment nobody signed up for, looking at “how do children develop language with masks?” she said.
As the mom of an 8-month-old, Manning is both monitoring her own baby’s milestones and in conversations with other parents concerned about what masks might mean. Although she occasionally hears something from a stranger on the sidewalk about how sad it must be for babies to see people wearing masks, she is herself not overly concerned.
“She’s never known anything different,” she said. Her daughter is babbling and loves clapping and waving, all normal signs, she said. She is reassured by knowing that children are hard-wired to learn language.
“There’s been moments that, even for myself, I’ve just had to stop and think about how this could be potentially impacting my daughter and other children,” she said. “If I’m having that concern, I can imagine parents that know less about language development than I do, this is amplified for them.”
To help children learn despite masks, some use clear masks that show mouths. Others might opt to use face shields.
Karen George, founder of Chicago Speech Therapy, said they have gotten creative, using clear masks for in-person sessions so children can still see their mouths, and also using teletherapy, which has been helpful to allow children to see faces and allow parents to be present and learn tools to help their children in between sessions. They see children anywhere from age 18 months to about 7 years, learning everything from how to speak to articulation.
“Definitely adding masks, that decreases that ability to see the facial expressions in some of those visual cues,” she said, adding that she is not overly concerned, and has not heard many specific concerns from parents.
For parents it might be good to ensure some one-on-one time, paying attention (in other words, put down the smartphone). If children are in day care or with a masked caregiver throughout the day, that time with a parent who can speak with them becomes more important. Emphasize that quality time.
“As long as they’re getting other interactions with somebody who’s not wearing a mask, like at home, by and large they’re probably going to be fine,” Norton said.