Thirty Million Words

Building a Child’s Brain

by Dana Suskind, MD

Excerpts from the book; notes by JFR

A book about the effect that parent language has on child development. TMW is an initiative to encourage best practices. Much of the book relates to studies of the language used by different socioeconomic households. I have arranged my notes so that practical applications are at the top, and political/statistical notes are towards the end.

“Thirty Million Words” refers to the difference in words used at home in different socioeconomic households, which comes out to more than 30mil by age 3.


TMW’s core strategy is the “Three T’s”

The Three T’s

Tune In (parental responsiveness)

Talk More

Take Turns

The author suggests a fourth T for “Turn Off Digital Devices,” and suggests going on a “Technology Diet:” (p189)


“Baby talk” (high-pitched with exaggerated sounds) is supposedly easier for a baby’s brain to parse * Recordings don’t seem to work as well * Referred to as “Child-Directed Speech”

Book Sharing

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended in 2014 that parents read to children starting at birth.

Comprehension is not the goal when reading to newborns. At 4 months, start applying the Three Ts.

Gesturing (pointing to words as they’re read) helps introduce the connection between spoken and written word


Storytelling by the child, especially about a child’s own past, is beneficial in many ways including processing emotions.


Fostering Executive Function


Singing is a useful form of “talking”


“Optimal caretaker language, in the very early years of a child’s life, is geared at helping a child toward independence.”

i.e. “What should we do with the toys now that we’re finished playing with them?”


Some types of praise (“you’re so smart”) can lead to giving up in the face of adversity (“I’m obviously not smart enough for this”) (fixed mindset, there’s a limit to my ability)

Process-based praise: praising hard work / behavior may be better (“you really worked hard”? the book is surprisingly lacking in examples of this kind of praise.) (growth mindset, my ability will increase with effort and time)

(Nathaniel Brandon’s “gift praise” vs Carol Dweck’s “process-based praise”)


A study showed that praising the person’s role was more effective than praising the action. Example: asking people to be “helpers” is more effective than asking people to “help.” (Personal note: is this because the people asked found worth through external validation and belonging?)


Look for opportunities to catch your child doing good and use process-based praise; be specific and consistent.


Factors that affect language acquisition (and a comparison between “professional families” vs “welfare families”)


Business talk (get things done) vs Extra Talk (adjectives, descriptions); extra talk is often where word, vocabulary, and conversation increases can occur.

Language Environment Analysis System: a “word pedometer” worn by a child that measures 16 hours of language environment.


Positive affirmations were more commonly observed among higher socioeconomic status families


Takao Hensch says that lifelong learning is deliberately inhibited, not impossible (brain plasticity does not decrease, but is used less with age).


In one study, daughters <2yo received half of the overall math talk that sons did.


Lev Vygotsky says language is a factor in the development of emotional intelligence (self-regulation)


Lareau studied 88 families of different socioeconomic status. “All of the families want[ed] their children to be happy and to grow and thrive.”


Wes Moore quote: “We are products of our expectations. Someone, at some point, put these expectations in our minds and we either live up to them, or live down to them.”


Paraphrased from Ariel Kalil:

“Public policy should be about providing parents with the tools to help them achieve their own goals of raising happy, healthy, and productive adults.”


A few of the initiatives listed that do this sort of work (other than TMW): Too Small to Fail, Talk With Me Baby, Reach Out and Read, Educare, Mind in the Making, VROOM, Providence Talks, Centering Healthcare