Human Language Development

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!

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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.

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Dylan at Two Months:

 

Dylan at Four Months:

 

Dylan at Eight Months:

 

REFERENCES:

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

 

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15 Comments

  1. Congratulations on being a new mom! I know you will have many wonderful experiences (and maybe some not so much…..colicky baby ugghhh!) Each experience is an opportunity to learn and as we embark on the teachings of this class, you will have better insight in the development of that tiny little mind of your child. I really enjoyed reading your post. Language development seems so complex. It is fascinating how young language development begins. I was on board with the “Einstein” era and some of the technology that came about to aid in child development and education. Though not a true whole hearted advocate of sitting a child in front of a computer screen, tv or other device, I believe they can be “helpful” when parent and child are engaged together. There is nothing more valuable than human interaction, sitting and reading to your child, or vice versa and most other activities that encourage learning and socialization, are the most beneficial. I’ve been a strong encourager /advocate for my own children and now my grand children to read, and find even the simplest ways to learn about what interests them, but also things that don’t. One of my grand children is experiencing some language and speech difficulties. With the aid and support of speech professionals, teachers and of course family he has made significant progress in a brief period of time! His progress in communication skills, vocabulary, and language development have also improved upon behavioral issues he was experiencing. His inability to communicate as well as other children his age were clearly very frustrating to him as well as to those who cared for him. Now, he is a completely different child. The information you posted is very interesting, thank you for sharing what you have learned with us.

  2. I can’t say that we abide by the no tv rule completely. We discovered during his days of colic that he loves Elmo! I honestly don’t think watching Sesame Street with him and singing along is that bad. The tv is usually on in the background while he plays, but it does give a lot of good starters for songs, conversations, counting, etc… I have a very big pet peeve about sitting him directly in front of the tv where he can’t turn away or do something else to entertain himself. I do also prefer toys that he can manipulate and “solve” on his own rather than lots of lights and sounds.

    As for his language development, I am the only person he is with every day and vice versa. I have PLENTY of conversations with him, since there is nobody else to talk to! We discuss CNN quite a bit since that is most of what I like to watch, but I do hope he doesn’t pick up on my trucker mouth in the car right away!

  3. As I can tell being a new mother helps experience the development of the brain first hand. It is very interesting to see how easy children pick up on new things, such as words and sound, and how they can learn every day.
    The movies and CDs that are advertised on television for earlier speech development seems to sound good on paper but the baby needs to have human interaction as you mentioned above. Children learn from everything around them and just staring at a tv won’t seem do the trick like human interaction does.

  4. As you mentioned the Einstein phase in recent years was a very popular trend. Back in the 90’s the Hooked on Phonics series being extremely popular. I recall taking my 3 year old daughter to pre-school and the parents of another child telling the teacher how their 3 year was already reading thanks to this program. Back in the day when information wasn’t as readily available at your fingertips as it is today, I discussed the Hooked on Phonics program with my Pediatrician. He didn’t feel at 3 my child was underdeveloped and needed to be reading. Since it was rather expensive and I passed on the trend. As our children moved through school, the child that had been reading at age 3 ended up on the same level of reading ability. Over the years I’ve watched popular trends come and go. I don’t think that will end. I loved to read, it was inherent that my children would most likely enjoy reading. I spent a lot of time reading to them as children.

    Coming from a social work back-ground and working with families with children I see firsthand the importance of human interaction aiding in brain development and success later in life. I recently heard on the news that the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy on the importance of reading aloud to infants. This is due in part to the importance of brain development in the first few years of life. Reading aloud to children aids in development of vocabulary. I was so happy to hear the AAP backing the importance of reading aloud to an infant. It is simple, it is free and anyone can do it. There are no bells and whistles and the outcomes are successful. It is interesting to see fads come and go yet all have the same intention. Interestingly, the importance human connection between an infant and the parent does not change. It is so important.

    The brain is so amazing and when you think of an infant and all the things that you mentioned you’ve gone through in these first 9 months. How timely is taking this class at the same time your child is going through all these changes with development!

    • The recent AAP recommendation proved my point to my husband! I frequently read to our son, and my husband will make comments, such as “I don’t think he’s listening.” Even so, I keep reading to him, with my signature, over the top narrations! He laughs and grabs the pages and likes to look at the pictures. I was blessed to have a Grandmother who read to me constantly and encouraged my reading from a young age. Even today, I enjoy reading over any other activity, along with a true love of learning. Without any kind of pressure, I hope to instill that same love of reading in Dylan. When the AAP made their announcement, I couldn’t help but grin gleefully at my husband!!

  5. Hello Kelly. WOW you really did your work on this blog. I love how you have the blog set up. I also really enjoyed your videos. They really give you a good idea of how young children talk. I work in an Infant room at a day care from time to time and I really see how the babies are starting to grow! I can see know that they are starting to babble to on another and to my self. It is very interesting how the mind work. It is true about what you said, how we can communicate with words and symbols. I believe that is really interesting because we are different from animals and we communicate much different. I also agree with what you said how if we read to children and babies at a young age they will start to recognize words and sounds. I believe in this since I am an ECE teacher, we really believe that saying. Great job

  6. Hi Kelly, first and foremost, Dylan is worth every tear you must of shed while he was in his colicky stage. Beautiful baby. I to endured a very colicky baby, 18 years ago. Yes, I did survive..and you will too. Trust me.
    Your blog was very interesting and you did a great job on this blog. I believe you must be a seasoned blogger!!!
    Anyway, I believe communication is very interesting in listening to babies coo and likewise seeing the difference in
    I did my lesson plans for part of my early childhood classes in an early learning center at LCCC. It completely amazes me how a 3 year old could have full blown conversation with an adult, and then you will have another child the same age, and maybe they are baby talking or not talking very much at all. This has nothing to do with intelligence. I believe it is the nature of the child along with the environment the child is in. Talking to your baby is the most beneficial thing a mom could do with her baby. Your a great mom Kelly. keep up the hard work.

  7. It’s amazing to see all of the stages that a unborn baby goes through before they are ready to be on earth. Even through pregnancy some doctors tell the new mothers to be to start talking and reading to their baby so they can hear your voice. Through this communication between mom and unborn child they will eventually start showing movement when they hear their mom’s voice and many times it can be very smoothing to the unborn baby when they are very active and uncomfortable for mom.

    I can remember in high school when I was a student teacher for the early child development class in my senior year, my goal was to make and educational plan and teach it to the children. It was just amazing to see all the young children coming into the classroom from age two years and up and how some of the children were very intelligent and just loved to learn. It was amazing to watch and hear the children try to re sight a book or activity that they have read with mom,dad or the lesson from the day before and get majority of it all right, I know in my childhood years when growing up I always loved to read and wanted to always learn something new. It was a great feeling learning how to do something new that I did not know how to do.

    Thank you for sharing your videos of Dylan to show how education is very important starting at a very young age for his interaction, social and intellectual skills to expand everyday as he grows, Keep reading to him, it’s a great gift and bond for the two of you.

    The one thing that I love to do in my free time is to read and I always ready out loud to my cat Midnight and it’s amazing how she responds to my voice when talking to her, so it has to be wonderful to watch your son look and smile at you when your talking to him. Loved your blog, it was very enjoyable. Jessie

  8. Hi Kelly, Wow your blog is very interesting. Your son Dylan is adorable. I agree that human interaction, speaking and reading encourages learning and language skills. I disagree however that all children of lower socioeconomic standing do not develop proper or advanced language skills. Caring parents can help foster a love of learning even if they are homeless.
    I read to my children every day most have developed an appetite for a good book, but some did not. They can all hold a conversation with just about anyone. Social interaction with peers is a bigger issue today facing children and teens especially with cell phones and social media… Today’s teen can not hold a conversation without texting!

  9. I agree with you regarding the ways a baby will recognize a parents voice before they are born. Very interesting story on how a baby’s brain and development stages grow even before birth. Most babies cries so their needs will be met. They go through different stages but one thing for sure if you sing and talk to a baby when they are crying most of the time it will work. But in most cases they are either wet or hungry and these needs are met they become happy and fall asleep or they just look around to get use to their surrounding. They become like little sponges when they start talking. They can repeat everything they hear and see. Your baby is gorgeous and seems to be reaching his developmental milestones. Congratulation on your first born. Enjoy every moment of his life.

  10. Congratulations! As a mom of an almost 8 year old, I can appreciate and relate to your excitement around wanting to to stimulate learning in your baby through various forms of communication. I totally agree with you that the presence of human interaction is critical for language learning and for that matter, all types of learning. We are social beings designed to have interpersonal relationships with one another. And since babies brains are literally like sponges, they are absorbing every bit of stimulation around them. Since we are social beings, I do think it is so very important to verbally communicate with our children through talking, reading, and singing, but equally important to communicate non – verbally as well through eye contact, smiling, touch, and just being with one another.
    Enjoy every moment of connection and bonding with your beautiful baby Dylan through the many forms of verbal and non – verbal communication! The relationship begins now and continues to grow richer, deeper, and even more meaningful… if you can believe it!

  11. Hi Kelly
    Great blog! I enjoyed it very much. While reading the blog I can feel your happiness, excitement and joy that you are experiencing through the growth of your baby. I too know what it is to hear a colicky baby, not fun, but it it got better. Language can be expressed in many ways. I’m sure that having a baby really gives you a front seat to how unique the development of human behavior can be. We are all different and we all communicate differently.

    I’m sure that you watch every movement, listen to every cry and every word, and watch for all the non-verbal language signs. All of this behavior is part of building a strong communication and creating a healthy relationship. You blog is very informative and creative. I enjoyed your videos very much.

    Congratulations on your new baby and enjoy the adventure of exploring with him.

  12. Kelly I have five children and four of the five turned out to be extremely colicky. Despite the 24/7 screaming that occurred in my house for what seems like four years straight, I found it interesting that all four had different needs during this time. Quinn we discovered after 5 months could not digest sugar or dairy and was suffering from an upset belly most of the time. Madalyn never slept and I believe she was colicky due to lack of sleep. Eli was a NICU baby and I think he was distressed over the noise in the house. I was rehospitalized for a week after Katarina and she was unable to be with me. Upon my return home she screamed non stop unless I was standing up and rocking her. Perhaps she was scared that I was going to leave again. She still after two years tends to get upset if we are not in the same room. I find it amazing that in the same environment these colicky kids were all trying to communicate something different to me. Enjoy your son, he sounds like a pretty awesome kid!!

  13. I loved your blog and how you incorporated something you love so much, your son, into your school work. I found it all very interesting how the brain develops and how a child can go from babbling and making cute sounds to one word statements in only a few months. I have worked with children since I graduated high school and started working in a daycare. I went from school age, to the infant room, to being a toddler teacher and now a nanny for an adorable 20 month old. I have always enjoyed watching my kids learn and knowing that I was a major part of that.
    I did find it interesting when you mentioned that speaking in a higher pitched, slower voice was better for the children to pick up on. I have always been a strong believer in speaking to children the way I would speak to adults, meaning tone and speed. I felt that speaking to them in “baby language” was not doing them any favors. Its always nice to learn new ways that will only help improve the learning of the children I am working with!
    I also enjoyed the adorable videos at the end, of your son! He looks like one happy baby! I could tell you put a lot of thought into your blog and I really enjoyed reading it !

  14. I’m also a mother, my daughter is four. I completely agree, watching them learn language is absolutely incredible. My daughter was an extremely quiet baby, she slept about 20 hours a day for the first eight months. One day she just woke up and started “talking.” From about 8-10 months, it was very obvious that she was trying to communicate her specific wants with us. She would even invent words for things (I recall mac and cheese was cheesemo, no idea why). I remember watching her every day and remarking how more and more she was like a “real” person and less like a baby. I will confess, I tried to do the “Your Baby Can Read” program with her. I was convinced I could turn her into a mensa genius before two… needless to say, it didn’t work, though she is very intelligent. However, I thought the logic of the program was actually fairly sound. The instructions said that you needed to play the videos 3-4 times a day, and they were about an hour or so, so you basically would have had it on repeat all day, and the same with the flashcards. The videos showed the word and a picture to go with it. You also were supposed to limit or exclude the child from watching any other kind of TV, like, ever. The conditions of accomplishing the program were basically impossible, but I truly believe that if you did it the way they said to, it would have worked, because children learn through repetition. Eventually all the words would have become sight words, and (at least in theory) the patterns would start to emerge, the same way a five year old learns to read. But like I said, the reason it can’t work is because the program is virtually impossible for anyone with a real life to follow.

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