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WASHINGTON – The sooner you start explaining the world to your baby, the better.

That doesn’t mean flash cards for tots, or merely pointing out objects: “Here’s an orange. That’s a bowl.”

New research shows that both how much and how well parents talk with babies and toddlers help to tune the youngsters’ brains in ways that build crucial language and vocabulary skills – a key to fighting the infamous word gap that puts poor children at a disadvantage at an even younger age than once thought.

The idea is to connect words and meaning, so the brain becomes primed to learn through context: “Let’s put the orange in this bowl with the banana and the apple and the grapes.”

“You’re building intelligence through language,” is how Stanford University psychology professor Anne Fernald explains it. “It’s making nets of meaning that then will help the child learn new words.”

And forget dumbed-down baby talk: Longer, more complex sentences are better.

“The advice I give mothers is to have conversations with your babies,” said Erika Hoff, a psychology professor at Florida Atlantic University. “Children can hear lots of talk that goes over their head in terms of the meaning, and they still benefit from it.”

The research, presented Thursday and today at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, comes amid a growing push for universal preschool, to help disadvantaged youngsters catch up.

But it also begs the question of whether children from low-income, less educated families need earlier intervention, such as preschool that starts at age 3 instead of 4, or higher quality day care or even some sort of “Let’s talk” campaign aimed at new parents to stress talking, singing and reading with tots even before they can respond. That can be difficult for parents working multiple jobs, or who may not read well or who simply don’t know why it’s important.

Scientists have long known that before they start kindergarten, children from middle-class or affluent families have heard millions more words than youngsters from low-income families, leaving the poorer children with smaller vocabularies and less ready to succeed academically. Fernald said by some measures, 5-year-olds from low-income families can lag two years behind their peers in tests of language development, an achievement gap that’s difficult to overcome.

Brain scans support the link, said Dr. Kimberly Noble of Columbia University Medical Center. Early experiences shape the connections that children’s brains form, and kids from higher socioeconomic backgrounds devote more “neural real estate” to brain regions involved in language development, she found.

How early does the word gap appear? Around age 18 months, Stanford’s Fernald discovered when she compared how children mentally process the language they hear. Lower-income kids in her study achieved at age 2 the level of proficiency that more affluent kids had reached six months earlier.

Next, Fernald tucked recorders into T-shirts of low-income toddlers in Spanish-speaking households to determine what they heard all day – and found remarkable differences in what’s called child-directed speech. That’s when children are spoken to directly, in contrast to television or conversations they overhear.

One child heard more than 12,000 words of child-directed speech in a day, while another heard a mere 670 words, she found.