As many of you are aware, I am a first time mom to a nine-month-old son, Dylan. Watching the human brain develop has been an amazing journey over the last 18 months. Ultrasound pictures revealed the development of structures; motor movements have progressed from reaching and grasping to crawling and climbing. I fear I am in for nonstop chasing once he starts walking since he is already into everything!
The most exciting milestone that he is working towards is language. As a very colicky, hard to soothe baby, I was assaulted with more than six months of nonstop screaming and crying. We may not know what he was trying to communicate, but this was his only way to vocalize and have his needs met. I also discovered that there are countless theories to explain this type of extreme infant behavior from digestive issues, to immature nervous systems, to personality and temperament, but that is a whole other topic that I could write about for days. Happily, he has moved on from incessant screaming to continuous babbling and vocalization that amuses everyone and encourages everyone around him to carry on conversations, trying to image what exciting things he might be trying to tell us.
Language development in humans is one characteristic that separates us from all other animals. Language can best be described as “communication through words or symbols for words.” (Wright, 2013) What distinguishes human language from animal communication is the use of grammar. These rules of speech enable individual thoughts to be expressed and comprehended by the listener. (Wright, 2013) The path to this highly complex ability begins when infants develop early speech and comprehension in the first days, months, and years of life, even before formal introduction begins. It has been observed that infants in every culture begin to develop language skills on a relatively fixed timetable, leading one to assume that progression of the developing brain in humans is designed to master all of the skills that make language and communication possible.
Scientists have long believed that an early critical period for successful language development exists in the first years of life. This critical period may begin even earlier than previously thought. Even in the womb, infants recognize speech and language sounds from the mother. A recent study showed that infants at 30 hours old distinguish between their native language and a foreign language. (McElroy, 2013) Each aspect of learning language likely has its own unique critical period. Phonetic, lexical, and syntax are learned at varying intervals. Phonetics are likely the earliest and most important key for building on later learning. (Kuhl, 2011)
With so many parts of the brain involved in the complexity of language skills, it can take until adolescence to exhibit a mastery of the skills. As the brain develops, higher areas come online, and the pruning of neural circuits begins while strengthening existing connections, language skills can be improved and begin to build. Most of these skills are processed in difference areas of the left hemisphere, such as Broca’s area for verbal pronunciation and Wernicke’s area where incoming messages are understood and outgoing sentences are constructed. However, the right hemisphere is also involved in understanding and interpreting meaning and messages. Because each area develops at its own time and speed, language development is an ongoing process from birth (or before) into adulthood. (Healy, 2004, p.183) How language is used also develops and gains complexity throughout childhood. At the basic level, language is used to satisfy needs and wants. It then moves on to controlling behaviors in the self and others, establishing interpersonal connections, expressing likes and dislikes, asking questions and collecting information, expressing creativity and ideas. Using language contributes to development and maturation of the brain and intelligence.
Four Stages in Acquiring Language
Several years ago, a new line of baby teaching tools exploded on the market. DVDs, CDs, and other technology-based products promised early speech and reading abilities, and would increase your child’s intelligence level before school. These products were quickly dismissed, however, when studies showed that television and other tech based tools could not develop infants’ abilities in the same way a live human can. The presence of human interaction is critical for language learning. Social understanding has been theorized as a “gate” that enables an infant’s brain to make the neural connections that process phonetic learning. (Kuhl, 2011) It is this critical factor that has been used to explain the drastic difference in language acquisition by children raised in lower socioeconomic status homes. The SES correlation is actually a difference in the input infants receive regarding the quality and amount of language they are exposed to. The complexity of language used by the child’s primary caregiver, or quality of motherese (speech patterns adults use that offers clear words, higher pitch, and longer pauses between sounds (Healy, 2004)) is the factor affecting development in language areas of the brain, such as Broca’s areas and the amount of left hemisphere gray matter. Thus, social interaction, body language, context, and emotion are all important aspects of language learning that Baby Einstein videos cannot replicate. The higher the quality of language input to the developing brain, the higher the quality output from the child as they learn to communicate.
As parents, we seek out information to create the best possible learning environment for infants and young children. However, natural exploration and social interaction are the most important teaching tools we can offer. Interactive play and hands on experience provides meaning to the words they hear. (Healy, 2004) Positive, loving interactions makes language input a pleasant experience and prevents tuning out, which can lead to poor listening habits. (Healy, 2004) Running commentary about our actions, events, and normal activities links words and conversation to rich descriptions and abstract ideas (Healy, 2004) It is this complex layer of sound, meaning, rules, and immersed learning that enables complete language development using the entire brain and moving from babbling to first words, to self expression, to higher level reasoning. As a mom, I am simply anxiously awaiting the day when I can say to Dylan, “I love you,” and he replies with his own expression of, “Lub you too, Mommy!”
The following website includes a great video that discusses the different theories of language development in children: Linguistics: Language Development In Children
Here are a few videos of my little guy moving through the first year stages, as well as his ultrasound picture showing his development at 13 weeks gestation.
Dylan at Two Months:
Dylan at Four Months:
Dylan at Eight Months:
Healy, Jane M. (2004) Your Child’s Growing Mind: Brain Development and Learning From Birth to Adolescence. New York, NY: Broadway Books. p. 191-205
Kuhl, Patricia K. (September 2011) Early Language Learning and Literacy: Neuroscience Implications for Education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 5: 128–142. Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3164118/
McElroy, Molly. (January 2, 2013) While In Womb, Babies Begin Learning Language From Their Mothers. University of Washington News. Retrieved from: http://www.washington.edu/news/2013/01/02/while-in-womb-babies-begin-learning-language-from-their-mothers/
Wright, Anthony. (2013) Chapter 8: Higher Cortical Functions – Language. Neuroscience Online: Electronic Textbook for Neuroscience. Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston. Retrieved from: http://neuroscience.uth.tmc.edu/s4/chapter08.html