Study sheds light on toddlers’ vocabulary development and COVID-19 lockdowns

While the lockdown measures of the COVID-19 pandemic likely had a negative impact on the learning outcomes of most school-aged children, there is new evidence to suggest that the language development of toddlers between the ages of 8 and 36 months actually benefited from these measures.

A study which is currently in press in the journal Language Development Research found that, among the babies and toddlers studied, children made greater gains in vocabulary size during the early lockdowns than individuals pre-lockdown. The study — which is currently the most comprehensive and wide reaching study of the pandemic’s effects on first language acquisition — looked at nearly 1,800 babies and toddlers living in 13 different countries. 

“This large-scale multinational study offers a unique window into associations between features of the home environment and children’s longitudinal receptive and expressive vocabulary development,” the study reads.

In the study, the researchers looked at numerous variables, including parent-child interactions, family socioeconomic status, and the children’s screen time, to determine how they impacted the acquisition of new vocabulary. Given that the ages of two and three are particularly pivotal times for first language development (particularly when it comes to vocabulary development), the study set out to see if the increased time spent at home as opposed to daycare centers or preschools during the pandemic might have impacted the children’s overall vocabulary growth.

On the whole, the lockdown measures did not harm the children’s acquisition of new vocabulary — in fact, the researchers actually suggest that there was a sort of “lockdown boost” in vocabulary acquisition. That is, the children observed tended to develop a richer and more expressive vocabulary than their counterparts whose toddlerhood was not spent under stay-at-home orders. Indeed, children whose parents spent lockdown reading to them regularly saw some of the highest gains, as well as children with limited screen time.

However, the researchers warn that these findings may not be generalizable to the world at large. The researchers believe that the subjects included in the study may have been more socioeconomically privileged than the global population as a whole — it’s possible that their socioeconomic status may have skewed results slightly. 

Children with parents who were not able to spend as much time with them during the lockdown (for example, parents whose jobs wouldn’t allow them to work from home) may not have seen the same “lockdown boost” as the children in the study. While the researchers’ findings appear to be promising and reassuring for parents, further research into the effect of socioeconomic status on the so-called “lockdown boost” may be necessary.


Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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