Language And Early Child Development


Aug 24, 2015


Babies are born linguists. They can react to sounds even before birth. And afterwards, experts say, their cries are the first stirrings of language.  Parents are often able to distinguish between these cries – of pain, fatigue and hunger – almost as if the child is speaking. But eventually, of course, words take the place of cries, a key part of language development in early childhood.

“The first three years of life are critical for language development,” says Dr. Piyush Ostwal, a neurologist in Pune.

During this time, a baby’s brain is most pliable and absorbs information at a startling rate. As he or she is exposed to language, neurons in the brain mature, branch out, and form connections with other neurons to establish the brain’s network of communication. Language development in early childhood is exponential; the average vocabulary of a 1-year-old is 50 words; by age 6, it’s 5,000.

After the age of 3 or 4, the brain’s language center continues to mature but in different ways, such as expanding vocabulary or honing grammar. It’s a process that happens naturally—but there are plenty of ways to help it along.

Babble Back

“The most important requirement at this stage is reciprocal communication,” Dr Ostwal says. “This includes constant attempts to speak to the child, to understand his jargon, to respond meaningfully to a baby’s rudimentary speech, to make him repeat things correctly and to playfully engage him in learning new words.”

This means that new parents’ baby talk – often the source of much amusement – is actually beneficial to the child, particularly when spoken in a higher-pitched voice . However, pitch isn’t the only point that matters. A 2005 study from Carnegie Mellon University found that a clear, slow and steady articulation of words and sounds is also key to helping develop a child’s language skills. So, use real words and talk often.

Avoid an Overload

While a child younger than three years may not be able to communicate all that he learns, a great deal of passive learning is still happening at this stage.

“The child is listening to other people talking, and this aids in language development, too,” says Dr. Ostwal.

Because of this passive learning, it can be easy for kids to become overwhelmed. This is of particular concern where babies hear more than one language spoken at home.

“Introducing too many languages (simultaneously) can impair learning of all of them,” says Dr Ostwal. “It is best to introduce one language first, preferably that which parents speak between themselves.”

Before age 3, be wary of exposing your baby to blaring television programs (more so if the program is not in your native tongue) and give deep consideration to hiring a caregiver who speaks a language different from your own. At the same time, encourage opportunities for your child to be exposed to the language of your choice, such as a date with the grandparents or a visit to the local park.

A strong foundation in one language can help build linguistic skills. After age 3, experts suggests introducing one language at a time, waiting till your child grasps one before moving on to another.

Read Aloud Often

According to the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, parents who regularly read aloud with their children nurture linguistic and literacy skills. This can be started early, even before a child is entirely able to articulate his or her needs and feelings. Reading – first to, and then with – a child not only optimizes brain development, but has the added bonus of strengthening the parent-child bond through extended one-on-one time.

Don’t Switch Hands

It happens in some schools—a well-meaning teacher encourages a left-handed child to switch hands and to write with his right hand. This typically occurs after the linguistic window of the first three years, but it can undermine the language skills a child has developed. When you force a shift primary hand usage, it can create confusion that affects language development in children.

“The part of the brain responsible for most language tasks is the dominant cerebral hemisphere,” explains Dr. Ostwal. Therefore, if a child is forced to use his or her non-dominant cerebral hemisphere – as in the case of a leftie forced to use his or her right hand – it can affect his or her grasp of language. This can manifest in a variety of ways, including stuttering, speech delays, an inability to pronounce certain words, and writing difficulties.

Make it Fun

When Rukmini, 36, living in the US, tried to teach her 8- and 5-year-old sons her native tongue Tamil, she says she went out of her way to make it as fun as possible.

“I bought them colorful cartoon VCD’s in Tamil, we played Tamil melodies constantly. I even read comics and encouraged them to build vocabulary by designating a particular day when they would speak entirely in Tamil.” She says the entertainment aspect worked for them, and today, both boys speak fluently in addition to English.


Written By Kamala Thiagarajan

Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the International New York Times, The Reader’s Digest (Indian edition), National Geographic Traveller, American Health & Fitness, Firstpost.com and more. She has written articles on the subjects of health, fitness, gender issues, travel and lifestyle for a global audience and has been published in newspapers and magazines in over ten countries. Visit her virtual home at kamala-thiagarajan.com or follow her @Kamal_t


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