Post No.: 0132
We tend to find it totally natural to speak to babies with a higher pitch than normal, with a rhythmic pace and exaggerating the length of the words – this ‘parentese’ or ‘baby talk’ is actually the best way to get babies to pay attention to us and to learn to grasp what’s being said.
According to current neuroscience, there are many areas of the brain associated with written and spoken language production and comprehension, for which the Broca’s area, Wernicke’s area and arcuate fasciculus are just the three main areas, and not that these areas are only involved in language production and comprehension and nothing else (multiple brain regions being used for a task, and brain regions having multiple functions, is quite common in neuroscience – rather than ‘one brain region per single task’).
For humans, learning a language is down to both an innate predisposition for language as well as learning to associate words with their meanings. For the former, there is a small optimum window of opportunity to most easily pick up a language, especially when it comes to picking up particular phonemes, syllables and sounds. This age is as young as 6-8 months old. For example, there are lots of sounds and intonations present in other languages that aren’t present or used in the same way in the English language (e.g. ‘ma’ in Cantonese can be intonated differently to mean a mother or a horse, amongst other words, but someone who doesn’t understand this may not be able to hear the differences, never mind replicate the correct sounds with their mouths easily). This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to learn a new language after this optimum window but it gets progressively more difficult.
Before infants start speaking, they’re actually innately better than adults at hearing these differences and therefore learning these subtleties. Being able to hear the complete menu of sounds seems innate, but the ones that are retained by infants (not pruned by the infant brain perhaps) as they grow are the ones they learn are important to the language(s) they are raised with.
Besides the sounds, one needs to learn the structure (grammar) of a language too (e.g. the order of subjects, verbs and objects, and tenses), and again, infants pick this up much more easily than adults. You can guess reasonably accurately what age immigrants moved into a country by the amount of these kinds of errors they produce (e.g. an Indian person moving to England before the age of 7, or maybe puberty, will likely become perfectly natively fluent in English, but will likely significantly and precipitously perform worse if they immigrate from 8 years old, or maybe from puberty, onwards, no matter how many years after this they then get exposed to English). There is therefore again a biologically sensitive optimal period for learning a language. We can learn new words throughout our lives but it’s really hard to learn the idiosyncratic sound patterns or grammar of a new language as an adult; although, again, difficult doesn’t mean impossible.
Learning a language isn’t simply a process of soaking up information from the environment but is a process of imposing structure on input – structure that can apparently only be imposed if children get exposure to language (any language) relatively early in life. What children are taught is clearly important. Yet with little input, children interacting together with other children can intuitively develop languages without the help of adults – ones that evolve and eventually incorporate the types of sophisticated grammatical rules we see in other well-established natural languages. So children seem to have a special sensitivity to language early in life that’s separate from their later talents for learning other things, such as names, arithmetic, dates, places, music, solving jigsaw puzzles, identifying rhyming words or searching for a lost object in a systematic way.
Do note that talking and reading are different brain processes. Even reading and writing aren’t the same processes. So one might be able to speak a language but not be able to read it. Albeit anyone who can read and write a language can typically also speak that same language unless they have some kind of brain damage or a physical problem with their vocal equipment. This means that talking, listening, reading and writing must all be directly taught and learnt rather than assuming that e.g. if someone can understand a language that’s spoken to them proficiently then they must automatically be able to write it proficiently too. Woof!
Since children develop at different paces, there can be a massive variability between different children and their language abilities at a given chronological age, but in the vast majority of cases these will resolve themselves over time as they grow (the same with other developmental milestones – in the main, this is totally normal). Girls tend to have a slightly larger vocabulary size over boys at an equivalent chronological age, and maybe socio-economic factors are correlated with vocabulary size too. Do check other factors like their eyesight and hearing, and even if they’re enjoying school, too though – investigate laterally in case there might be other factors that are hindering their learning progress.
Since individual children develop at very different rates to each other (and children in the same school year can be 12 months in chronological age apart too) but they tend to more-or-less all catch up with each other eventually – grouping children into ‘slow classes’ and ‘fast classes’ (for any subject) in school can be problematic because this could give early developers (or older pupils) a persistent and compounding advantage over their later developers (or younger pupils), and any groupings/labels could place a self-fulfilling prophecy on the children too.
But the counter-argument is what else should teachers do except tailor teaching to a child’s current level of abilities, as is the optimal thing to do (as long as the children’s abilities are constantly being individually reassessed to see if they’re each receiving the right level of teaching)? Perhaps the ‘slower’ children should receive extra tuition to help them catch up with the ‘faster’ children? Basically, should the current fast learners be given special/extra attention or should the current slow learners be given special/extra attention instead? When teaching resources are limited, this is a dilemma. Or should there morally be no differential treatments at all?
Woof. Although there’s still room for improvement – literacy rates around the world have been generally steadily improving over the past couple of decades so that’s fabulous news! The fact that you’re able to read this blog means you probabilistically started to learn English from an early age, and likely at least partly thanks to public institutions that nurtured your innate predispositions. Going to school to learn core skills like speaking, listening, reading and writing (any language, not necessarily English) should really be a basic right for all children in the world because one cannot so easily make up for the loss of opportunity later in life (e.g. because a child had to work to help his/her family survive from a very early age rather than go to school, and the compounding knock-on effects of this unlucky start in life).