Janet Townend, an early language and literacy specialist, has developed TTYB and is now a specialist adviser to the national project. She has lived in Tanzania since 2008 and works with her husband David, who is also employed by the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training as a VSO Education Volunteer Tutor / Mentor at Morogoro Teachers’ College.
The project began with Janet’s observations since 2008 of babies with lively eyes, curious about their environment, gurgling and chortling like infants the world over, but with little response from the adults around them. Tanzanian women confirmed that usually infants are not talked to very much until they begin to speak. Babies though are designed for the complex process of language development, with one key ingredient being the language they hear in their environment. The most important early influence is naturally the mother, and even small babies begin to recognise the tone of their mother’s voice and to respond long before they can reply. Early ‘language stimulation’ is vital to the child’s future development, because neurological studies have shown that the brain’s language development peaks in the first year of life, and lack of early input seems to compromise later linguistic development and literacy skills, and possibly other skills too.
Talk to your Baby is being researched and piloted in a number of locations across Tanzania to assess the most effective methods of improving the situation. As the first location to move into actual intervention (see below) Chole has now taken a lead position in the overall project. Once the pilots are completed, in the second half of 2013, and the data are gathered and analysed it is expected that a campaign to disseminate the findings will be conducted nationally. It is worth noting that this project has the potential to provide major long term benefits nationally at very little cost.
The Chole Pilot
The Talk to your Baby pilot studies are carefully designed research exercises, using both a control group and an intervention group ie one group of mothers and babies will simply be monitored, whilst a second is given training and mentoring in talking to their babies. Thirty mothers and babies living both on Chole and the neighbouring island of Juani make up the intervention group, whilst another thirty in two villages on Mafia are the control group. Because it is so important to eliminate bias the two groups have been briefed that they are participating in a study on early childhood development, rather than being given the exact details of the research.
It is a tribute to the empowering impact to the Chole approach that when the Harambee Committee was asked whether, alongside the CSWD, it could handle such an approach the immediate response was ‘yes’ followed by the comment ‘well now that we have changed, yes we can do it’.
The first step was to establish a baseline, documenting how mothers actually communicated with their babies before any intervention. Enumerators visited each participating family three times, for half an hour each time, recording both the number of words spoken in the environment, for example between family members, and the number addressed directly to the baby. Each session was also recorded on Dictaphone, making the raw data available for later more detailed analysis.
A second group of trainers / mentors was then recruited and trained to manage the intervention with the Chole / Juani group. A two session workshop then introduced this group to the concepts behind Talk to your Baby, with both parents and other important carers, such as a grandparent or sister, being invited. First of all the possible benefits, including better linguistic development leading to improved school results and job prospects, and also that it cost nothing, were explained. An immediate unexpected result was the strong support from fathers, who asked why they had never been told about it before.
The second session focused on practical advice on how to actually talk more to babies, to break down habitual barriers. For example, advice was given on how to simply chat to a baby about what was going on, and to tell their baby what was being done around it. Advice was also given on using toys as an aid, during which some superstitious preconceptions had to be challenged, such as a belief that if a baby saw its own image in a mirror then the growth of its teeth would be hindered! All the toys used were made from material to hand, so for example an empty plastic bottle could be filled with shells to make a rattle. Following the workshop session the trainers / mentors will follow up each family each month, with the CSWD giving special support to the families on Juani island, which has a less developed social infrastructure than Chole.
Although the data has to be analysed the immediate results seem remarkable, with babies visibly more animated and a real commitment from their parents. Riziki Hassani, Chair of the Harambee Committee, is rumoured to have said she would have to have another baby to try it for herself! A DVD is under development to act as a reminder for the participating families, and a workshop is planned for July to introduce it and to get feedback and generally catch up.
After six months the enumerators will repeat the data gathering exercise so that differences between the intervention group and control group can be analysed, and then in March 2013 simple language comprehension assessments are planned for the babies.
Funding Talk to your Baby
Funding an innovative project such as Talk to your Baby is always difficult, because the results are intangible and speculative. The ultimate solution reflected great credit on a number of different people and organisations.
The Chole community was always interested in conducting a Talk to your Baby pilot, but the costs, though not very large, were clearly beyond the Trust's resources. At the same time the need for rigorous research in different urban and rural communities and ensuring sufficient scale to give statistical significance always meant that ideally research would be carried out nationally.
With no clear way forward, Anne and Jean de Villiers personally stepped forward to fund the initial stages of the Chole pilot, including recruiting the enumerators, providing them with dictaphones, training them and recruiting the participating families. The result was that the Chole pilot was able to gather momentum before the Lodge closed for the rains between mid April and the end of May.
Then in February the Trust’s Chairman in London met a director of UBS to discuss the UBS Optimus Foundation, based in Switzerland, possibly funding a standalone Talk to your Baby pilot and other possible projects on Chole. Because Optimus funds projects with national potential and scalability it became clear that such an application for Chole would not be sufficient to meet their criteria. Nevertheless Talk to you Baby as a concept was clearly potentially very valuable and easily scalable, so a second meeting was arranged with a representative from Optimus which confirmed that in principal Optimus would be interested in considering an application on a wider scale.
Within a very few days Children in Crossfire, another wonderful charity which does have a nationwide remit in Tanzania, agreed, with the support of UBS Optimus, to make an application which would include the planned Chole pilot, alongside other similar pilots in other communities and environments. A herculean effort by Matthew Banks, Tanzania Country Director of CiC, supported by Janet and David Townend and Optimus, resulted in a comprehensive plan for eight pilot studies being developed and submitted for approval by a mid March deadline.
That application was approved, so now we are looking forward to Chole making an important early contribution to what could be a very exciting project across the whole of Tanzania.