Hi. Kia ora! How are you? Fine thanks. What’s that you say? Its language! Say what?
Language is a creative tool we use to communicate with each other, a productive, evolving, socially shared code (who loves the word 'code'?) The ability to use symbols (words) to organise our world and express our experiences is described by expert Robert E. Owens, Jr. as “the premier achievement of humans”. The average adult English language user uses 150 words a minute, choosing these from between 30,000 and 60,000 alternatives. The mind boggles... how on earth do we even begin to learn this? Thats the challenge our children fearlessly face every day with grace and good humour (well, mostly).
There are a staggering 6000 languages spoken throughout the world. Learning even one of these languages is a ridiculously complex process, although experts agree that the human brain does seem ‘wired’ for it. There are three steps we take to learn language, and we fire up multiple areas of our brain as we do it.
- We learn how to listen and focus so we can decode the sounds within a word, then decode the whole word.
- We relate that word to its meaning (we have to create our own little dictionary inside our head for this).
- We use precise speech muscles to form a shape with our mouth to speak that word out loud.
It is vital that children hear a lot of language spoken to and around them in their early days and months, because the number of words an infant hears has a direct effect on how quickly they learn language later in the preschool years.
Most of us learn language by listening. Children do actively contribute to their own learning by watching, listening, and experimenting with sounds (collective sigh, as we recall our cute babies babbling away in gibberish, naaaw).
Although we can communicate by writing, sign language and drawing, most language is transmitted by speech. On that note, children spend much of their first year experimenting with their vocal range, preparing to speak later. They produce many different sounds and little by little they fine tune them to match their native language - so clever and cute. Regardless of the language being learned, it appears that the first few sounds we make are the same the world over - sounds like ‘m’, ‘w’, ‘b’, and ‘p’. Our babies are actually born with the ability to create and use every sound combination possible, but they lose this potential if the sounds aren’t being used around them. Umm, no pressure!
Early language learning is all about patterns. The little linguists near you are listening all the time to work out the common sounds and phrasings of the language spoken in the home.
Kids don’t try and learn thousands of alternative words – they learn the base patterns then ‘freeflow’, which cuts down brain admin time and results in surprising (and so cute) word combinations. A universal favourite with parents is how children say 'goed' instead of 'went' - such fun.
Understanding a language is so much more than simply being able to say the words too. When we speak we use a lot of gestures, facial expressions, eye contact and body posture, which all communicate meaning - Robert E. Owens Jr says that these can carry up to 60% of the information. Remarkable, really! We also speak faster or slower depending on the setting, we emphasize words within a sentence, and talk in a higher pitch to turn a sentence into a question (the Kiwi accent does this with almost every sentence just for fun eh). By the way a child soon figures out that a long pause after they make a request usually means they’re going to get a NO answer. Yes parents, your pauses say so much!
Our genetics provide the brain structure and developmental timings - the rest comes down to individual personality and what we experience. Kids learn using all of their senses – linking and intertwining their hearing, sight, touch, taste and smell to make sense of the world (more about how we learn to listen here). As a caregiver, you can do so much to help your child with their language, and its helpful to have a basic understanding of how our language develops in the early years.
Ngā manaakitanga (with best wishes), Liz xx
Information for the Eardrops blog language series was guided and overseen by Dr Jayne Newbury, Researcher in Child Language (University of Canterbury), with the comprehensive information in Language Development: An Introduction by Robert E. Owens, Jr. (2015). This post was written by Liz Donnelly, creator of Eardrops, audio stories that help develop listening skills and improve everyday language in children.