smallTalk Helps Parents Develop Babies’ Brainpower for Language
What if, as a new parent, you could make it easier for your child to learn languages for the rest of their life?
That’s the exciting idea and the science behind smallTalk, an Ohio-based consumer technology startup that is developing technology licensed from Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, OH.
“The foundation of our company is based on what happens in the brain during infancy around language,” said Dean Koch, smallTalk co-founder and CEO. “In the first three years of your life, you are creating the brain that you are going to have for life.”
The brain organizes itself during those early years. As Koch puts it, the brain’s highways, superhighways, and back alleys get built.
“The sensory systems of vision and hearing get wired right away. Your language center gets wired based on the first seven to eight months of life. As babies are spoken to, their brain is wiring itself to specialize in the speech sounds and rhythms of their native language, said Koch.
“When you talk to a baby,” he said, “you naturally change your speaking pattern for the benefit of the baby, what may be referred to as ’parentese,’ but scientifically is known as ’infant-directed’ speech. This speech pattern is what babies love, and it helps them separate the speech sounds of their language, and develop the part of the brain that process language.”
Active Learning Creates Lasting Language Pathways
“We have interviewed a thousand or so moms about their aspirations for their children. Language skills rank above music and sports as a life skill,” said Koch.
Even at this earliest stage of language learning, interactive learning is required. Scientists refer to it as a contingent process, a learning session that requires an action from the baby. Helping babies interact with more languages in infancy opens their ability to hear more speech sounds from different languages.
“The best language learners on the planet are babies, yet of all the language technology out there,” Koch said, “there is language learning for adults, some for children, and none for infants.”
The smallTalk system works to engage the baby in language “lessons” that match growth milestones and are pre-recorded by real moms singing or speaking to their own babies in their native languages. With the smallTalk Egg, the baby uses a sensor equipped pacifier, and through that is in charge of their learning sessions.
By sucking on the pacifier, the baby activates the smallTalk Egg, a baby-proofed speaker. Pacifier and speaker are baby-safe. There are no wires, no small parts and only Bluetooth low energy that manages communications between the sensor in the pacifier and the smallTalk Egg.
When the baby sucks on the pacifier, they hear ten seconds of a lullaby, song, or story in the language parents select from the smallTalk companion app. The app curates content, tracks baby’s progress, and alerts parents to milestones along the way.
“We find that parents intuitively know that languages are good for the brain,” Koch said. “The knowledge for what is going on in the brain during infancy around language acquisition is well understood. Our ability to create an invention to take advantage of that is novel.”
The smallTalk Egg is the first in the company’s line of BabyTech products.
smallTalk’s co-founder and chief science officer Dr. Nathalie Maitre, a neuroscientist specializing in infant brain development, in an expert in language acquisition for infants. Koch and Dr. Maitre founded smallTalk to translate Dr. Maitre’s work to benefit the brains of hospitalized babies into products that can be used at home.
“This is an experience for mom and dad to share with their child,” Koch said. “It is not an electronic babysitter or a white noise machine for babies. We are science-based , and we translate that into a consumer product that makes parents feel good and is entertaining to the baby. We can’t teach your baby French, but we can prove that we are helping you prepare your baby to easily learn French, and through that, develop a brain that has real advantages for life.”
Learn more about the science behind smallTalk.