Elaine Shiver, M.S.S.W.
Parents of young children and professionals working with young children watch with anticipation the developmental milestones indicating a child is picking up the skills expected at a certain age. In the first year of life that focus is typically on motor skills, in the second year attention shifts to language development.
The development of communication through language is an instinctive process. Language is our most common means of interacting with one another, and children begin the process naturally. Neurobiologist Dr. Lise Eliot writes: “the reason language is instinctive is because it is, to a large extent, hard-wired in the brain. Just as we evolve neural circuits for eating and seeing, so has our brain, together with a sophisticated vocal apparatus, evolved a complex neural circuit for rapidly perceiving, analyzing, composing, and producing language” (Eliot, 1999).
We also know, however, that the experiences provided in a child's environment are critical for the development of language. It is this interplay of nature and nurture that results in our ability to communicate, but the process of learning language begins with how the brain is structured.
The brain is structured for language
Neuroscientists tell us that a baby is born with millions of brain cells, all he or she will ever need. Each brain cell has branching appendages, called dendrites, that reach out to make connections with other brain cells. The places where brain cells connect are called synapses. When electrical signals pass from brain cell to brain cell, they cross the synapse between the cells.
When synapses are stimulated over and over, that pattern of neural connections is “hard-wired” in the brain. It becomes an efficient, permanent pathway that allows signals to be transmitted quickly and accurately. Advances in brain-imaging technology in recent years have confirmed this process.
New technology has allowed us to see that there are physical differences in a child's brain that has been appropriately stimulated, versus one that has suffered lack of stimulation. Connections that are not stimulated by repeated experiences atrophy, or fade away. It is truly a “use-it-or-lose-it” situation.
We know that reorganization of the connections between brain cells after birth is highly impacted by experiences provided by the child's environment. Parents play an invaluable role in influencing the child's cognitive, language, motor, and social emotional development. It is through providing repeated, positive experiences for their child that parents have a lasting impact on his or her child's brain development.
Good nutrition and healthy routines are important to the brain's developmental process. Brain cells are covered with a fatty substance called myelin that insulates the neural pathways to provide for efficient signal transfer. Infants must receive sufficient fat in their diets provided by breast milk or formula prepared in the proper strength.
Also, babies need a lot of sleep, because their brains need to experience both deep sleep and rapid eye movement sleep for proper development. Establishing routines for eating and sleeping are among the most important things parents can do to assist healthy brain development in their child.
Critical periods for learning language
Critical periods in brain development accommodate the development of specific skills, language being one of these. During certain times in the child's life, the brain is active in forming connections for specific abilities.
While critical periods are prime times for the development of specific neural synapses, skills can still be learned after a window of opportunity has closed, but with greater time and effort. It is during these critical periods that lack of stimulation or negative experiences can have the most impact.
Parents can support their child's brain development for language during these times by providing experiences that allow the child to practice emerging skills. Opportunities during the course of the day to engage in face-to-face interaction, hear language being spoken, listen to the written word read aloud, and practice associating objects with words provide language experiences without undue stress or overstimulation.
One of the first windows of opportunity for language comes early in life. We know that infants start out able to distinguish the sound of all languages, but that by six months of age they are no longer able to recognize sounds that are not heard in their native tongue. As infants hear the patterns of sound in their own language, a different cluster of neurons in the auditory cortex of the brain responds to each sound. By six months of age, infants will have difficulty picking out sounds they have not heard repeated often.
Windows of opportunity for language development occur throughout life. The window for syntax or grammar is open during the preschool years and may close as early as five or six years of age, while the window for adding new words never closes completely.
Language development begins early
Researchers now tell us that an infant is able to respond to sound 10 weeks before birth, learning the mother's voice and the sound pattern of the language she speaks prenatally through bone conduction. A baby takes comfort in hearing his mother's voice after birth, therefore a mother's lullaby can be very calming, especially if the mother sang to the baby during pregnancy.
While a newborn does not use words, he is definitely able to communicate. He can look into his father's or mother's face in a way that tells them he wants to hear their voices. By crying he is able to let them know when he is hungry, cold, needs a diaper change, or has other needs to be met.
An infant's brain responds best to a type of speech called “parentese,” which adults use naturally when speaking to babies. Parentese uses short, simple sentences, prolonged vowel sounds, more inflection in the voice, and a higher pitch than the speech used when talking to another adult. Studies have shown that when parents spoke parentese, the baby was able to connect words sooner to the objects they represent.
Parents provide the means of learning language
Brain development information simply reinforces much of what early childhood experts have been suggesting for years. The development of language is tremendously influenced by parent-child interactions. In the first year, it is important to talk, sing, and read to the baby often so he can learn the sounds of his native language.
In addition to learning the sounds of speech, during the first six months a child's brain begins to learn which mouth movements go with the sounds. That is the reason it is important to have lots of face-to-face conversations with the baby as the parent interprets the world around him.
Cooing, and then babbling are milestones in language acquisition. Babies like to mimic what they hear. By speaking to the child and imitating the child's sounds, a parent not only teaches the child sound patterns but encourages taking turns, a process necessary for conversation. Studies have shown that children whose parents spoke to them more often know many more words by age two and scored higher on standardized tests by age three than those whose parents did not.
In the second year of life, the brain organizes the connections for language when the child sees pictures in a book and hears the parent give names for the pictures simultaneously. Parents and other primary caregivers can help language development at this age by reciting nursery rhymes, songs, and poems throughout the day. Activities such as using a mirror to point out and name facial features are also helpful at this age. Ideal times for story telling and reading are quiet, relaxed moments before naptime or bedtime.
Between 24 and 35 months of age the brain is getting better at forming mental symbols for objects, people, and events. This is directly related to the growing ability to use many more words and short sentences.
Delays in language can have a variety of sources. When parents suspect such delays it is always prudent to check with a professional. Repeated ear infections in the first few years delay expressive language. It is always important to watch for signs of ear infections in a young child, such as not reacting to sound, pulling one's ears, reluctance to suck, resistance to laying down, or having an upper respiratory infection.
Speaking two languages at home
Hearing two languages spoken at home is a real advantage to the child. If a child hears two languages from birth, he or she will maintain the ability to hear the sounds of both and be able to speak each language with the accent of a native speaker.
If parents each speak a different language, it is helpful if the child hears the same language consistently from the parent who is its native speaker. If, for example, the mother is a native English speaker and the father a native Spanish speaker, it will be less confusing for the child to hear each parent speak in his or her native language.
The child may mix the languages in his or her own speech initially, but will typically sort it out by approximately two and one-half years of age. Then he or she will separate the words belonging to each language and know which language to use with which parent. By seven years of age, the child is likely to be able to cope with the two language systems without a problem, using both vocabulary and grammar appropriate for his age.
If a child enters a pre-school and is first exposed to a second language after the age of three, she will still be able to acquire the second language easily because she knows the rules of communication. In three to seven months the child will begin to understand the second language. After about two years she will be able to carry-on a fluent conversation.
Young children learn a second language more easily than adults because the window of opportunity for learning language is still open for them. Helping the child build her self-confidence during the time she is learning a second language is very important.
Music is a great way to help the child learn words and phrases in the new language. Talking slowly, clearly, and simply is also helpful. It is also important for parents to continue speaking to the child at home in her native language because it continues to lay the foundation for the second language by providing the basic rules of communication. Also, the parent-child interaction might suffer if the parents speak less to the child in an attempt to use the second language.
Support for parents
Parents play a key role in helping their child learn language. Programs that give parents child development information can help parents understand how to nurture their child's growing language skills. They offer research-based suggestions for parents at each stage of development. Parents as Teachers is an example of a parent support and information program, and is one of the models supported by IDRA's Project RE-CONNECT. Parents and professionals can visit the Parents as Teachers web site at http://www.patnc.org for more information about the program and suggestions for supporting their child's language development.
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Begley, S. “Your Child's Brain,” Newsweek (New York, NY: 55-62, 1996).
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Gopnik, A., and A.N. Meltzoff, P.K. Kuhl. The Scientist In The Crib, What Early Learning Tells Us About The Mind. (William Morrow and Co., 1999).
Johnson, G. “Building a Better Brain for Baby,” The New York Times (New York, NY: 1-6, 1994).
Eliot, L. What's Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1999).
Shonkoff, J.P., From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2000).Elaine Shiver, M.S.S.W., is a program director for the Mental Health Association in Texas where she coordinates training and technical assistance for Parents As Teachers programs in the state. Comments and questions may be directed to IDRA via e-mail at
[©2001, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]