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How is a young child able to learn language so easily?

How is a young child able to learn language so easily?


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It's a well known fact that the earlier children are exposed to languages the better, as young children have a better ability to learn new languages than adults.

  • Why is this?
  • At what age does a human's mind start to lose this ability?
  • What causes the change?
  • Does this phenomenon have a name?

It's theorized that there is a Critical Period of language development in children below the age of five (roughly, as age ranges always are in Developmental Psychology).

Probably the most significant and readily verifiable finding is that a critical period exists for the learning of Phonemes. Research has suggested children readily differentiate phonemes from all human languages at very early ages; less than 5 years old. There is much debate in Linguistics on this matter and many articles covering the discussion .

After this Critical Period most children and adults can only accurately differentiate and produce phonemes present in their native languages and have difficulty producing and differentiating phonemes from other languages. This is why when learning a language late in life learners often struggle with pronunciation.

A classic example of this is the difficulty native Japanese speakers have with English L and R sounds. As L2, late-in-life second language learners they struggle differentiating the actual sounds and thus producing the different sounds.

There are some interesting theories in what can overcome this deficiency in learning "late" (L2) second languages, see Age and Ultimate Attainment in the Pronunciation of Foreign Languages and Teaching Second-Language Phonetics to Adults.

In addition Noam Chomsky has some interesting interviews and publications about language development in children, such as his interview with Lillian R. Putnam.

Note that Chomsky's opinions and theories are controversial, particularly his concept of a "Language Acquisition Device", which is Nativist to an extreme. There is much material on Chomsky's Theories of Language Acquisition but I would take his theories with a grain of salt.

The Critical Period has been found to apply even to children learning sign language. A good overview on this situation is The critical period for language acquisition and the deaf child's language comprehension : a psycholinguistic approach by Rachel I. Mayberry.

The critical period hypothesis for language acquisition (CP) proposes that the outcome of language acquisition is not uniform over the lifespan but rather is best during early childhood. The CP hypothesis was originally proposed for spoken language but recent research has shown that it applies equally to sign language


During the first year of a child’s life, parents and carers are concerned with its physical development during the second year, they watch the baby’s language development very carefully. It is interesting just how easily children learn the language. Children who are just three or four years old, who cannot yet tie their shoelaces, are able to speak in full sentences without any specific language training.

The current view of child language development is that it is an instinct – something as natural as eating or sleeping. According to experts in this area, this language instinct is innate – something each of us is born with. But this prevailing view has not always enjoyed widespread acceptance.

In the middle of last century, experts of the time, including a renowned professor at Harvard University in the United States, regarded child language development as the process of learning through mere repetition. Language “habits” developed as young children were rewarded for repeating language correctly and ignored or punished when they used incorrect forms of language. Over time, a child, according to this theory, would learn a language much like a dog might learn to behave properly through training.

Yet even though the modern view holds that language is instinctive, experts like Assistant Professor Lise Eliot are convinced that the interaction a child has with its parents and caregivers is crucial to its developments. The language of the parents and caregivers act as models for the developing child. In fact, a baby’s day-to-day experience is so important that the child will learn to speak in a manner very similar to the model speakers it hears.

Given that the models parents provide are so important, it is interesting to consider the role of “baby talk” in the child’s language development. Baby talk is the language produced by an adult speaker who is trying to exaggerate certain aspects of the language to capture the attention of a young baby.

Dr Roberta Golinkoff believes that babies benefit from baby talk. Experiments show that immediately after birth babies respond more to infant-directed talk than they do to adult-directed talk. When using baby talk, people exaggerate their facial expressions, which helps the baby to begin to understand what is being communicated. She also notes that the exaggerated nature and repetition of baby talk helps infants to learn the difference between sounds. Since babies have a great deal of information to process, baby talk helps. Although there is concern that baby talk may persist too long, Dr Golinkoff says that it stops being used as the child gets older, that is, when the child is better able to communicate with the parents.

Professor Jusczyk has made a particular study of babies” ability to recognise sounds, and says they recognise the sound of their own names as early as four and a half months. Babies know the meaning of Mummy and Daddy by about six months, which is earlier than was previously believed. By about nine months, babies begin recognizing frequent patterns in language. A baby will listen longer to the sounds that occur frequently, so it is good to frequently call the infant by its name.

An experiment at Johns Hopkins University in USA, in which researchers went to the homes of 16 nine-month-olds, confirms this view. The researchers arranged their visits for ten days out of a two week period. During each visit, the researcher played an audio tape that included the same three stories. The stories included odd words such as “python” or “hornbill”, words that were unlikely to be encountered in the babies’ everyday experience. After a couple of weeks during which nothing was done, the babies were brought to the research lab, where they listened to two recorded lists of words. The first list included words heard in the story. The second included similar words, but not the exact ones that were used in the stories.

Jusczyk found the babies listened longer to the words that had appeared in the stories, which indicated that the babies had extracted individual words from the story. When a control group of 16 nine-month-olds, who had not heard the stories, listened to the two groups of words, they showed no preference for either list.

This does not mean that the babies actually understand the meanings of the words, just the sound patterns. It supports the idea that people are born to speak, and have the capacity to learn language from the day they are born. This ability is enhanced if they are involved in conversations. And, significantly, Dr Eliot reminds parents that babies and toddlers need to feel they are communicating. Clearly, sitting in front of the television is not enough the baby must be having an interaction with another speaker.

Questions 29-34

Complete the summary below. Choose no more than THREE WORDS AND/OR NUMBERS from the passage and write them in boxes 29-34 on your answer sheet.

The study of 29 ……………….. in very young children has changed considerably in the last 50 years. It has been established that children can speak independently at age 30 ………………. and that this ability is innate. The child will, in fact, follow the speech patterns and linguistic behaviour of its carers and parents who act as 31 ………………..

Babies actually benefit from “baby talk”, in which adults 32 ……………….. both sounds and facial expressions. Babies’ ability to 33 ……………….. sound patterns rather than words comes earlier than was previously thought. It is very important that babies are included in 34 …………………

Questions 35-40

Do the following statements agree with the views of the writer in the passage “How babies learn language”?

In boxes 35-40 on your answer sheet write –

YES if the statement agrees with the writer
NO if the statement does not agree with the writer
NOT GIVEN if there is no information about this in the passage

35. Children can learn their first language without being taught.
36. From the time of their birth, humans seem to have an ability to learn language.
37. According to experts in the 1950s and ’60s, language learning is very similar to the training of animals.
38. Repetition in language learning is important, according to Dr Eliot.
39. Dr Golinkoff is concerned that “baby talk” is spoken too much by some parents.
40. The first word a child learns to recognise is usually “Mummy” or “Daddy”.

29. language development
30. 3 or 4/ 3 – 4 years
31. models
32. exaggerate
33. recognise
34. conversation/ interaction/ communication
35. YES
36. YES
37. YES
38. NOT GIVEN
39. NO
40. NO


How can young children best learn languages?

Your child is unique, but what all children have in common is natural curiosity and an innate ability to learn.

Our brains are dynamic and constantly active, and a baby’s brain is the busiest of all. Research has shown that babies begin to understand language about twice as fast as they actually speak it. According to Dr Patricia Kuhl, what’s going on in a baby’s brain is nothing short of rocket science: ‘By three, a little child’s brain is actually twice as active as an adult brain.’

Kuhl states that babies and young children are geniuses at acquiring a second language. 'Babies', she says, 'can discriminate all the sounds of all languages. and that's remarkable because you and I can't do that. We're culture-bound listeners. We can discriminate the sounds of our own language, but not those of foreign languages'.

By exposing children to other languages at an early age, you are giving them the opportunity to tap into their natural ability to hear and distinguish the sounds of other languages, and their capacity to make sense of what they are hearing.

Children make language-learning look easy

Communication is something that children do to help them achieve something else, and they are blissfully unaware of the enormous amount of learning taking place. They take everything in through their senses, making connections between what they hear, see, smell, taste and touch.

If your child plays with toy cars, they will learn about colour, shape, size, texture, friction, direction, and spatial awareness (forwards, backwards, sideways) they will extend their vocabulary (hearing new words, naming and describing), develop social skills (taking turns and sharing) they will learn how to ask for what they want (verbally or non-verbally), categorise things (let’s put all the blue cars in this box), and put things in sequence (what comes next?) – the possibilities are endless. As long as we provide the right conditions, their learning and development will take place in a natural and integrated way.

Children's emotional environment is important for learning

In your child’s early years, the emotional environment is just as important as the physical environment. Children learn when they feel secure, happy, valued and listened to. This is central to any learning experience in a child’s early years, including learning an additional language.

What your child needs is a loving, stimulating and enriching environment, with a balance of adult-led and child-led activities and age-appropriate resources. Adult-led activities, which can be things like stories, songs, rhymes, games, arts and crafts, and dance-and-movement activities, give the child exposure to the language. But it is the interactions that take place, particularly in the child-led activities, that can really support and broaden a child’s language development, encouraging authentic and meaningful communication in context. The right conditions help children learn even more.

Why do young children enjoy playing with languages?

Learning another language early allows your child to fully enjoy the way it sounds. Children aren’t afraid to play with languages. They are drawn into the magic of rhymes and songs. They hear and experiment with the beat of a song they enjoy mimicking the pronunciation of new and strange words and they play with rhyming words through repetition, even inventing their own examples. By doing these things, your child is listening to the sounds of the language, and inadvertently working on rhythm, stress, intonation and pronunciation.

Older learners sometimes lose this fascination with words and sounds, or they become self-conscious and are less likely to play with the language in the same, uninhibited way. Tuning into the sounds of English early has many benefits later on. Research [link no longer available – 17 July 2017] carried out by the Centre for Early Literacy Learning (CELL) indicates that there is a relationship between young children’s abilities to sing nursery rhymes and the way they play with sounds and practise early reading skills.

Are young children less afraid of making mistakes?

Your child has a trial-and-error approach to its development, and making mistakes is a valuable part of the learning process. In terms of language development, in their quest to make sense of what they hear around them, children experiment with ideas and will, of course, make mistakes. We recognise that sentences like 'Mummy, I digged in the garden' and 'I have two foots' are mistakes because we have already mastered irregular verbs and nouns. But these are examples of children applying the rules of the language as they occur in the (regular) forms they have already picked up.

When we expose children to an additional language at an early age, they reap the benefits of experimenting with that language as a natural part of their development. Their progress isn’t stifled by a fear of getting it wrong, which is sometimes the case with us as adults very young children are simply working their way towards getting it right.

How can we lay the foundations for success?

The long-term benefits of learning another language go beyond being able to communicate with others. Professor Tina Bruce, renowned expert on early childhood and play, points out that ‘children who speak three languages that have entirely different roots have a range of sounds and understandings that are, in every sense, mind-expanding.’

Studies suggest that children learning an additional language tend to score better on standardised tests because learning languages develops listening, observation, problem-solving and critical thinking skills. These are transferable skills that are of life-long benefit, both personally and professionally. Encouraging in children a love of language at an early age prepares them well for school and for life.

Tracey Chapelton is a British Council teacher, educational consultant and one of the lead editors on our new educational approach for early years children, Learning Time with Shaun & Timmy.

The British Council has teamed up with Montessori to open its second Learning Time with Shaun & Timmy branch in Mexico City. It is located at Kids’ Place, Mazatlan #173 (esq. Alfonso Reyes), Colonia Condesa, Ciudad de México. Book a demo class.

Whether you are based in Mexico or elsewhere, find more information about the programme and the latest developments.


Building Blocks for Learning to Read

To learn how to read, children need to be aware of some fundamental processes first.

Phonemic Awareness

This is where learning to read starts. Phonemic awareness means understanding that speech is made up of individual sounds. It is a critical part of reading readiness, so it is often a focus of early learning programs.

Alphabetic Awareness

Since writing isn't speech, phonemic awareness isn't enough to allow children to learn to read. In order to learn to read, children must be able to recognize that the marks on a page represent the sounds of a language.

Those marks, of course, are letters. This is more than just memorizing the alphabet. Learning the alphabet is part of reading readiness, but to be able to read, children must be able to do more than simply memorize the letters. They must also be able to identify which sounds in the language (phonemes) go with which letters.

Memorizing letters and sounds is a more difficult task that memorizing the names of objects like animals. Animals are concrete things—they can be seen and they can be pictured. For example, you can point to a cat and say "cat" to help your child connect the word to the animal.

You can point to pictures of cats or other objects to make your child connect the words to the objects. But sounds can't be pictured, so memorizing which sounds go with which letters is a more abstract process than memorizing the names of objects. The best we can do is use a picture of a cat to illustrate the sound of "C."

Memorizing the sounds that go with the letters of the alphabet is even more difficult because there is not an exact correlation between letters and sounds. English has about 44 sounds, but only 26 letters to represent those sounds.

Some letters represent more than one sound, as we can see from the letter A in the words father and fat. But other letters seem unnecessary since the sounds they represent are sounds that other letters represent. For example, we could just as easily spell queen "kween" and we could spell exit "egzit."

Sounds to Word Awareness Blending

As difficult as it might be to match all the sounds to the right letters and memorize them all, learning to read requires even more. Children must also be able to link printed words to sounds. That is more complex than it sounds because a word is more than the sum of its letters.

The word cat, for example, is made of up three sounds represented by three different letters: c-a-t. Children must be able to recognize that these sounds blend together to form the word cat.

Making the connections between sounds and printed words is so complex that we still don't know exactly how children do it. But when they are able to manage it, we say they have "broken the code."


Infants already babble in their mother tongue

As babies, we can hear all of the 600 consonants and 200 vowels that make up the world’s languages. Within our first year, our brains begin to specialise, tuning into the sounds we hear most frequently. Infants already babble in their mother tongue. Even newborns cry with an accent, imitating the speech they heard while in the womb. This specialisation also means shedding the skills we do not need. Japanese babies can easily distinguish between ‘l’ and ‘r’ sounds. Japanese adults tend to find this more difficult.

Even newborns cry with an accent, imitating the speech they heard while in the womb (Credit: Getty)

There is no question, Sorace says, that the early years are crucial for acquiring our own language. Studies of abandoned or isolated children have shown that if we do not learn human speech early on, we cannot easily make up for this later.

But here is the surprise: that cut-off is not the same for foreign language learning.

“The important thing to understand is that age co-varies with many other things,” says Danijela Trenkic, a psycholinguist at the University of York. Children’s lives are completely different from those of adults. So when we compare the language skills of children and adults, Trenkic says, “we’re not comparing like with like”.

When a family moves countries, the children often learn a language faster – but that may be because it’s more necessary to their survival (Credit: Getty)

She gives the example of a family moving to a new country. Typically, children will learn the language much faster than their parents. But that may be because they hear it constantly at school, while their parents might be working alone. The children may also feel a greater sense of urgency since mastering the language is crucial to their social survival: making friends, being accepted, fitting in. Their parents, on the other hand, are more likely to be able to socialise with people who understand them, such as fellow immigrants.


Children take longer to learn two languages at once compared to just one -- don't fret

Worldwide immigration patterns are increasing the number of children who grow up exposed to two languages, a circumstance that provides numerous benefits as well as some challenges. Because bilingual children's input is divided between two languages -- the majority language of the country where they reside and their family's heritage language -- on average, they receive less input in each language compared to children who receive all of their input in just one language. As a result, bilingual children develop each language at a slower pace because their learning is spread across two languages.

A leading psychologist and language development expert at Florida Atlantic University says, "Don't worry," and reassures parents, teachers and clinicians that it is perfectly normal for bilingually developing children to take longer because they are learning more. In a review published in the journal Child Development Perspectives, Erika Hoff, Ph.D., a psychology professor and director of the Language Development Laboratory in FAU's Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, examined research on the course of dual language growth among children in immigrant families. She focused on children exposed to two languages from birth and identified quantity of input, quality of input, and children's use of language as factors that influence language growth.

Hoff's review of the research shows strong evidence that the rate of language growth is influenced by the quantity of language input. Her findings challenge the belief, held in and out of scientific circles that children are linguistic sponges who quickly absorb the language or languages they hear and will become proficient speakers of two languages so long as they are exposed to both at an early age.

"One clear implication of studies of bilingual children is that we should not expect them to be two monolinguals in one," said Hoff. "The bilingual child, like the bilingual adult, will develop competencies in each language 'to the extent required by his or her needs and those of the environment.'"

The findings indicate that the quality of language exposure is also important. Hoff argues that immigrant parents should use the language they are most comfortable speaking when they interact with their children. They should not be told to use English just because it is the language of the host country if their own English proficiency is limited.

"To support bilingual development fully, children's exposure to each language should come from highly proficient speakers," Hoff said.

The research shows that children also need to use a language in order to acquire it. In bilingual environments, children can choose the language they speak, and when one language is more prestigious than the other, they choose the more prestigious language. Bilingual development is supported when both the host and heritage languages are valued by society and children have opportunities that encourage them to use both languages.

Prior research has shown that French-English bilingualism is achieved more successfully in Canada than is Spanish-English bilingualism in the United States, and that the equal prestige of the two languages in Canada plays a role. In Canada, children also may have greater access to highly proficient speakers of both languages because both languages are national languages.

"Children from immigrant families need strong skills in the majority language to succeed in school, and they need skills in the heritage language to communicate well with their parents and grandparents," said Hoff. "Bilingualism is an asset for interpersonal, occupational, and cognitive reasons. Children who hear two languages from birth can become bilingual, even if that outcome is not guaranteed."

Hoff's findings suggest that bilingual children's competencies, in addition to reflecting their communicative needs, also reflect the quantity and quality of their exposure to each language.

"These findings repeat conclusions from studies of monolingual development that language acquisition depends on the quantity and quality of language experience and the opportunity to participate in conversation," said Hoff.

This research is supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (HD068421) awarded to Hoff.


Brain Readiness

Young children are hard-wired to learn language in the first few years of life. When frequently exposed to two languages, they unconsciously acquire the second language naturally, applying the same skills they use to acquire their native language. Older children and adults have to learn the language consciously by studying it. Children use the deep motor area of the brain, which controls unconscious actions, to absorb a second language, according to Dr. Paul Thompson, neurology professor at UCLA. After age 11, centers in the brain responsible for language acquisition stop growing rapidly and language acquisition becomes more difficult 2.


Is it really easier for a child to learn a second language?

We've all heard the common myth: kids learn languages easier than adults. But is it true? Discover why and how you can still learn languages as an adult.

We’ve all heard a common complaint among adults about learning a language that goes something like this: “I wish I had started to learn this language as a child. Kids learn languages so much easier.”

Since this belief is so pervasive, it must be true, right? Turns out it’s actually wrong.

While children do have certain advantages when learning a second language, like being more adept at speaking without a foreign accent, they don’t have it inherently easier. In fact, some studies actually suggest that you may be better off learning as an adult.

After all, some people are able to become fluent in just three months. It usually takes kids until they are 5 or 6 before they are truly speaking their first language fluently!

So, why does it seem easier for a child to learn a second language? How much of this language learning myth is true? Below we outline a couple ways that kids and adults differ in learning languages and how that affects each one's ability to learn efficiently.

[See also: Our complete toolkit for How to learn a language on your own]


Young Children's Oral Language Development

The development of oral language is one of the child's most natural--and impressive--accomplishments. This [Eric] digest presents an overview of the process and mechanics of language development, along with implications for practice.

When and How Language is Learned

Almost all children learn the rules of their language at an early age through use, and over time, without formal instruction. Thus one source for learning must be genetic. Humans beings are born to speak they have an innate gift for figuring out the rules of the language used in their environment. The environment itself is also a significant factor. Children learn the specific variety of language (dialect) that the important people around them speak.

Children do not, however, learn only by imitating those around them. We know that children work through linguistic rules on their own because they use forms that adults never use, such as "I goed there before" or "I see your feets." Children eventually learn the conventional forms, "went" and "feet", as they sort out for themselves the exceptions to the rules of English syntax. As with learning to walk, learning to talk requires time for development and practice in everyday situations. Constant correction of a child's speech is usually unproductive.

Children seem born not just to speak, but also to interact socially. Even before they use words, they use cries and gestures to convey meaning they often understand the meanings that others convey. The point of learning language and interacting socially, then, is not to master rules, but to make connections with other people and to make sense of experiences (Wells, 1986). In summary, language occurs through an interaction among genes (which hold innate tendencies to communicate and be sociable), environment, and the child's own thinking abilities.

When children develop abilities is always a difficult question to answer. In general, children say their first words between 12 and 18 months of age. They begin to use complex sentences by the age of 4 to 4 1/2 years. By the time they start kindergarten, children know most of the fundamentals of their language, so that they are able to converse easily with someone who speaks as they do (that is, in their dialect). As with other aspects of development, language acquisition is not predictable. One child may say her first word at 10 months, another at 20 months. One child may use complex sentences at 5 1/2 years, another at 3 years.

Oral language, the complex system that relates sounds to meanings, is made up of three components: the phonological, semantic, and syntactic (Lindfors, 1987). The phonological component involves the rules for combining sounds. Speakers of English, for example, know that an English word can end, but not begin, with an "-ng" sound. We are not aware of our knowledge of these rules, but our ability to understand and pronounce English words demonstrates that we do know a vast number of rules.

The semantic component is made up of morphemes, the smallest units of meaning that may be combined with each other to make up words (for example, "paper" + "s" are the two morphemes that make up "papers"), and sentences (Brown, 1973). A dictionary contains the semantic component of a language, and reflects not just what words make up that language, but also what words (and meanings) are important to the speakers of the language.

The syntactic component consists of the rules that enable us to combine morphemes into sentences. As soon as a child uses two morphemes together, as in "more cracker," she is using a syntactic rule about how morphemes are combined to convey meaning. Like the rules making up the other components, syntactic rules become increasingly complex as the child develops. From combining two morphemes, the child goes on to combine words with suffixes or inflections ("-s" or "-ing", as in "papers" and "eating") and eventually creates questions, statements, commands, etc. She also learns to combine two ideas into one complex sentence, as in "I'll share my crackers if you share your juice." Of course speakers of a language constantly use these three components of language together, usually in social situations.

Some language experts would add a fourth component: pragmatics, which deals with rules of language use. Pragmatic rules are part of our communicative competence, our ability to speak appropriately in different situations, for example, in a conversational way at home and in a more formal way at a job interview. Young children need to learn the ways of speaking in the day care center or school where, for example, teachers often ask rhetorical questions. Learning pragmatic rules is as important as learning the rules of the other components of language since people are perceived and judged based on both what they say and how and when they say it.

Nurturing Language Development

Parents and caregivers need to remember that language in the great majority of individuals develops very efficiently. Adults should try not to focus on "problems," such as the inability to pronounce words as adults do (for example, when children pronounce r's like w's). Most children naturally outgrow such things, which are a tiny segment of the child's total repertoire of language. However, if a child appears not to hear what others say to her if family members and those closest to her find her difficult to understand or if she is noticeably different in her communicative abilities from those in her age range, adults may want to seek advice from specialists in children's speech, language and hearing.

Teachers can help sustain natural language development by providing environments full of language development opportunities. Here are some general guidelines for teachers, parents, and other caregivers:

Understand that every child's language or dialect is worthy of respect as a valid system for communication. It reflects the identities, values, and experiences of the child's family and community.

Treat children as if they are conversationalists, even if they are not yet talking. Children learn very early about how conversations work (taking turns, looking attentively, using facial expressions, etc.) as long as they have experiences with conversing adults.

Encourage interaction among children. Peer learning is an important part of language development, especially in mixed-age groups. Activities involving a wide range of materials should promote talk. There should be a balance between individual activities and those that nurture collaboration and discussion, such as dramatic play, block-building, book-sharing, or carpentry.

Remember that parents, caregivers, teachers, and guardians are the chief resources in language development. Children learn much from each other, but adults are the main conversationalists, questioners, listeners, responders, and sustainers of language development and growth in the child-care center or classroom. Continue to encourage interaction as children come to understand written language. Children in the primary grades can keep developing oral abilities and skills by consulting with each other, raising questions, and providing information in varied situations. Every area of the curriculum is enhanced through language, so that classrooms full of active learners are hardly ever silent.


How Young Children Learn Language

In the early childhood classroom, silence is not golden. Spoken words are opportunities for learning that should take place throughout the day - especially during conversations between children and between teachers and children.

Human language is a remarkable way to communicate. No other form of communication in the natural world transfers so much information in such a short period of time. It is even more remarkable that in three short years a child can hear, mimic, explore, practice, and finally, learn language.


Language Learning
There is no genetic code that leads a child to speak English or Spanish or Japanese. Language is learned. We are born with the capacity to make 40 sounds and our genetics allows our brain to make associations between sounds and objects, actions, or ideas. The combination of these capabilities allows the creation of language. Sounds come to have meaning. The babbling sound "ma - ma - ma" of the infant becomes mama, and then mother. In the first years of life children listen, practice, and learn. The amusing sounds of a young toddler practicing language (in seemingly meaningless chatter) is really their modeling of the rhythm, tone, volume, and non-verbal expressions they see in us.

Language -with all of its magnificent complexity- is one of the greatest gifts we give our children. Yet, we so often treat our verbal communication with children in a casual way. It is a misconception that children learn language passively. Language acquisition is a product of active, repetitive, and complex learning. The child's brain is learning and changing more during language acquisition in the first six years of life than during any other cognitive ability he is working to acquire. How much easier this learning process can be for children when adults are active participants!

Adults help children learn language primarily by talking with them. It happens when a mother coos and baby-talks with her child. It happens when a father listens to the fractured, rambling, breathless story of his 3-year-old. It happens when a teacher patiently repeats instructions to an inattentive student.

Working With Language Delays
It is very common for teachers in early childhood classrooms to have children with speech and language delays. The process of learning language can be impaired in many ways. These can include difficulties in hearing, problems in making associations between sight and sound, attention deficits, and a limited background of experience. A child's language skills are directly related to the number of words and complex conversations they have with others. In order to learn the relationship between sounds and objects- a child must hear. And then make the association between the sound and what it symbolizes. If a child hears few words, if a child is rarely read to, sung to, or talked with, he will not have normal language development. Children growing up in verbally and cognitively impoverished settings have speech and language delays. In more extreme situations, children neglected by their caregivers and rarely spoken with can have completely undeveloped speech and language skills.

Fortunately, the parts of the brain responsible for language are very malleable. Given opportunities to hear, talk and have complex conversations, these children can catch up. The challenge for the early childhood teacher is to make sure that these children have many developmentally appropriate language activities. It is important that concerns about delayed language skills are shared with the family and other school personnel in order to properly diagnose potential causes. Many parents are inexperienced and may not be aware of what is "normal" language development at any given age. Early childhood classrooms are one of most important settings for early identification of language problems.

What You Can Do
Create conversation buddies. Talk with children and encourage them to have conversations with each other. Several times during the day, help children "discuss" various topics with their conversation buddies. Topics might include what they did during the weekend, what they thought of a story, who they know that reminds them of a character in a book you just read to them.

Introduce words by theme. Use word games to help the children learn to rhyme, understand opposites, find as many words to describe an object as possible, and learn the names of new objects. You can make this more interesting by picking a theme to guide this. For example, cook up a delicious snack in the classroom and explore words such as ladle, strainer, colander, and cutting board.

Engage children in listening exercises. We often forget that language is both receptive and expressive. Make sure that children don't just mimic words and learn to say things. It is essential that children are listening, receiving accurately and processing effectively what they hear. Introduce exercises where children are asked to repeat back what they heard you say (you will often be amazed at how varied and inaccurate their interpretations can be). Have children relate key elements of a story or an activity. And emphasize to children the importance of listening to their conversation buddies.


How Young Children Learn Language

In the early childhood classroom, silence is not golden. Spoken words are opportunities for learning that should take place throughout the day - especially during conversations between children and between teachers and children.

Human language is a remarkable way to communicate. No other form of communication in the natural world transfers so much information in such a short period of time. It is even more remarkable that in three short years a child can hear, mimic, explore, practice, and finally, learn language.


Language Learning
There is no genetic code that leads a child to speak English or Spanish or Japanese. Language is learned. We are born with the capacity to make 40 sounds and our genetics allows our brain to make associations between sounds and objects, actions, or ideas. The combination of these capabilities allows the creation of language. Sounds come to have meaning. The babbling sound "ma - ma - ma" of the infant becomes mama, and then mother. In the first years of life children listen, practice, and learn. The amusing sounds of a young toddler practicing language (in seemingly meaningless chatter) is really their modeling of the rhythm, tone, volume, and non-verbal expressions they see in us.

Language -with all of its magnificent complexity- is one of the greatest gifts we give our children. Yet, we so often treat our verbal communication with children in a casual way. It is a misconception that children learn language passively. Language acquisition is a product of active, repetitive, and complex learning. The child's brain is learning and changing more during language acquisition in the first six years of life than during any other cognitive ability he is working to acquire. How much easier this learning process can be for children when adults are active participants!

Adults help children learn language primarily by talking with them. It happens when a mother coos and baby-talks with her child. It happens when a father listens to the fractured, rambling, breathless story of his 3-year-old. It happens when a teacher patiently repeats instructions to an inattentive student.

Working With Language Delays
It is very common for teachers in early childhood classrooms to have children with speech and language delays. The process of learning language can be impaired in many ways. These can include difficulties in hearing, problems in making associations between sight and sound, attention deficits, and a limited background of experience. A child's language skills are directly related to the number of words and complex conversations they have with others. In order to learn the relationship between sounds and objects- a child must hear. And then make the association between the sound and what it symbolizes. If a child hears few words, if a child is rarely read to, sung to, or talked with, he will not have normal language development. Children growing up in verbally and cognitively impoverished settings have speech and language delays. In more extreme situations, children neglected by their caregivers and rarely spoken with can have completely undeveloped speech and language skills.

Fortunately, the parts of the brain responsible for language are very malleable. Given opportunities to hear, talk and have complex conversations, these children can catch up. The challenge for the early childhood teacher is to make sure that these children have many developmentally appropriate language activities. It is important that concerns about delayed language skills are shared with the family and other school personnel in order to properly diagnose potential causes. Many parents are inexperienced and may not be aware of what is "normal" language development at any given age. Early childhood classrooms are one of most important settings for early identification of language problems.

What You Can Do
Create conversation buddies. Talk with children and encourage them to have conversations with each other. Several times during the day, help children "discuss" various topics with their conversation buddies. Topics might include what they did during the weekend, what they thought of a story, who they know that reminds them of a character in a book you just read to them.

Introduce words by theme. Use word games to help the children learn to rhyme, understand opposites, find as many words to describe an object as possible, and learn the names of new objects. You can make this more interesting by picking a theme to guide this. For example, cook up a delicious snack in the classroom and explore words such as ladle, strainer, colander, and cutting board.

Engage children in listening exercises. We often forget that language is both receptive and expressive. Make sure that children don't just mimic words and learn to say things. It is essential that children are listening, receiving accurately and processing effectively what they hear. Introduce exercises where children are asked to repeat back what they heard you say (you will often be amazed at how varied and inaccurate their interpretations can be). Have children relate key elements of a story or an activity. And emphasize to children the importance of listening to their conversation buddies.


How can young children best learn languages?

Your child is unique, but what all children have in common is natural curiosity and an innate ability to learn.

Our brains are dynamic and constantly active, and a baby’s brain is the busiest of all. Research has shown that babies begin to understand language about twice as fast as they actually speak it. According to Dr Patricia Kuhl, what’s going on in a baby’s brain is nothing short of rocket science: ‘By three, a little child’s brain is actually twice as active as an adult brain.’

Kuhl states that babies and young children are geniuses at acquiring a second language. 'Babies', she says, 'can discriminate all the sounds of all languages. and that's remarkable because you and I can't do that. We're culture-bound listeners. We can discriminate the sounds of our own language, but not those of foreign languages'.

By exposing children to other languages at an early age, you are giving them the opportunity to tap into their natural ability to hear and distinguish the sounds of other languages, and their capacity to make sense of what they are hearing.

Children make language-learning look easy

Communication is something that children do to help them achieve something else, and they are blissfully unaware of the enormous amount of learning taking place. They take everything in through their senses, making connections between what they hear, see, smell, taste and touch.

If your child plays with toy cars, they will learn about colour, shape, size, texture, friction, direction, and spatial awareness (forwards, backwards, sideways) they will extend their vocabulary (hearing new words, naming and describing), develop social skills (taking turns and sharing) they will learn how to ask for what they want (verbally or non-verbally), categorise things (let’s put all the blue cars in this box), and put things in sequence (what comes next?) – the possibilities are endless. As long as we provide the right conditions, their learning and development will take place in a natural and integrated way.

Children's emotional environment is important for learning

In your child’s early years, the emotional environment is just as important as the physical environment. Children learn when they feel secure, happy, valued and listened to. This is central to any learning experience in a child’s early years, including learning an additional language.

What your child needs is a loving, stimulating and enriching environment, with a balance of adult-led and child-led activities and age-appropriate resources. Adult-led activities, which can be things like stories, songs, rhymes, games, arts and crafts, and dance-and-movement activities, give the child exposure to the language. But it is the interactions that take place, particularly in the child-led activities, that can really support and broaden a child’s language development, encouraging authentic and meaningful communication in context. The right conditions help children learn even more.

Why do young children enjoy playing with languages?

Learning another language early allows your child to fully enjoy the way it sounds. Children aren’t afraid to play with languages. They are drawn into the magic of rhymes and songs. They hear and experiment with the beat of a song they enjoy mimicking the pronunciation of new and strange words and they play with rhyming words through repetition, even inventing their own examples. By doing these things, your child is listening to the sounds of the language, and inadvertently working on rhythm, stress, intonation and pronunciation.

Older learners sometimes lose this fascination with words and sounds, or they become self-conscious and are less likely to play with the language in the same, uninhibited way. Tuning into the sounds of English early has many benefits later on. Research [link no longer available – 17 July 2017] carried out by the Centre for Early Literacy Learning (CELL) indicates that there is a relationship between young children’s abilities to sing nursery rhymes and the way they play with sounds and practise early reading skills.

Are young children less afraid of making mistakes?

Your child has a trial-and-error approach to its development, and making mistakes is a valuable part of the learning process. In terms of language development, in their quest to make sense of what they hear around them, children experiment with ideas and will, of course, make mistakes. We recognise that sentences like 'Mummy, I digged in the garden' and 'I have two foots' are mistakes because we have already mastered irregular verbs and nouns. But these are examples of children applying the rules of the language as they occur in the (regular) forms they have already picked up.

When we expose children to an additional language at an early age, they reap the benefits of experimenting with that language as a natural part of their development. Their progress isn’t stifled by a fear of getting it wrong, which is sometimes the case with us as adults very young children are simply working their way towards getting it right.

How can we lay the foundations for success?

The long-term benefits of learning another language go beyond being able to communicate with others. Professor Tina Bruce, renowned expert on early childhood and play, points out that ‘children who speak three languages that have entirely different roots have a range of sounds and understandings that are, in every sense, mind-expanding.’

Studies suggest that children learning an additional language tend to score better on standardised tests because learning languages develops listening, observation, problem-solving and critical thinking skills. These are transferable skills that are of life-long benefit, both personally and professionally. Encouraging in children a love of language at an early age prepares them well for school and for life.

Tracey Chapelton is a British Council teacher, educational consultant and one of the lead editors on our new educational approach for early years children, Learning Time with Shaun & Timmy.

The British Council has teamed up with Montessori to open its second Learning Time with Shaun & Timmy branch in Mexico City. It is located at Kids’ Place, Mazatlan #173 (esq. Alfonso Reyes), Colonia Condesa, Ciudad de México. Book a demo class.

Whether you are based in Mexico or elsewhere, find more information about the programme and the latest developments.


Young Children's Oral Language Development

The development of oral language is one of the child's most natural--and impressive--accomplishments. This [Eric] digest presents an overview of the process and mechanics of language development, along with implications for practice.

When and How Language is Learned

Almost all children learn the rules of their language at an early age through use, and over time, without formal instruction. Thus one source for learning must be genetic. Humans beings are born to speak they have an innate gift for figuring out the rules of the language used in their environment. The environment itself is also a significant factor. Children learn the specific variety of language (dialect) that the important people around them speak.

Children do not, however, learn only by imitating those around them. We know that children work through linguistic rules on their own because they use forms that adults never use, such as "I goed there before" or "I see your feets." Children eventually learn the conventional forms, "went" and "feet", as they sort out for themselves the exceptions to the rules of English syntax. As with learning to walk, learning to talk requires time for development and practice in everyday situations. Constant correction of a child's speech is usually unproductive.

Children seem born not just to speak, but also to interact socially. Even before they use words, they use cries and gestures to convey meaning they often understand the meanings that others convey. The point of learning language and interacting socially, then, is not to master rules, but to make connections with other people and to make sense of experiences (Wells, 1986). In summary, language occurs through an interaction among genes (which hold innate tendencies to communicate and be sociable), environment, and the child's own thinking abilities.

When children develop abilities is always a difficult question to answer. In general, children say their first words between 12 and 18 months of age. They begin to use complex sentences by the age of 4 to 4 1/2 years. By the time they start kindergarten, children know most of the fundamentals of their language, so that they are able to converse easily with someone who speaks as they do (that is, in their dialect). As with other aspects of development, language acquisition is not predictable. One child may say her first word at 10 months, another at 20 months. One child may use complex sentences at 5 1/2 years, another at 3 years.

Oral language, the complex system that relates sounds to meanings, is made up of three components: the phonological, semantic, and syntactic (Lindfors, 1987). The phonological component involves the rules for combining sounds. Speakers of English, for example, know that an English word can end, but not begin, with an "-ng" sound. We are not aware of our knowledge of these rules, but our ability to understand and pronounce English words demonstrates that we do know a vast number of rules.

The semantic component is made up of morphemes, the smallest units of meaning that may be combined with each other to make up words (for example, "paper" + "s" are the two morphemes that make up "papers"), and sentences (Brown, 1973). A dictionary contains the semantic component of a language, and reflects not just what words make up that language, but also what words (and meanings) are important to the speakers of the language.

The syntactic component consists of the rules that enable us to combine morphemes into sentences. As soon as a child uses two morphemes together, as in "more cracker," she is using a syntactic rule about how morphemes are combined to convey meaning. Like the rules making up the other components, syntactic rules become increasingly complex as the child develops. From combining two morphemes, the child goes on to combine words with suffixes or inflections ("-s" or "-ing", as in "papers" and "eating") and eventually creates questions, statements, commands, etc. She also learns to combine two ideas into one complex sentence, as in "I'll share my crackers if you share your juice." Of course speakers of a language constantly use these three components of language together, usually in social situations.

Some language experts would add a fourth component: pragmatics, which deals with rules of language use. Pragmatic rules are part of our communicative competence, our ability to speak appropriately in different situations, for example, in a conversational way at home and in a more formal way at a job interview. Young children need to learn the ways of speaking in the day care center or school where, for example, teachers often ask rhetorical questions. Learning pragmatic rules is as important as learning the rules of the other components of language since people are perceived and judged based on both what they say and how and when they say it.

Nurturing Language Development

Parents and caregivers need to remember that language in the great majority of individuals develops very efficiently. Adults should try not to focus on "problems," such as the inability to pronounce words as adults do (for example, when children pronounce r's like w's). Most children naturally outgrow such things, which are a tiny segment of the child's total repertoire of language. However, if a child appears not to hear what others say to her if family members and those closest to her find her difficult to understand or if she is noticeably different in her communicative abilities from those in her age range, adults may want to seek advice from specialists in children's speech, language and hearing.

Teachers can help sustain natural language development by providing environments full of language development opportunities. Here are some general guidelines for teachers, parents, and other caregivers:

Understand that every child's language or dialect is worthy of respect as a valid system for communication. It reflects the identities, values, and experiences of the child's family and community.

Treat children as if they are conversationalists, even if they are not yet talking. Children learn very early about how conversations work (taking turns, looking attentively, using facial expressions, etc.) as long as they have experiences with conversing adults.

Encourage interaction among children. Peer learning is an important part of language development, especially in mixed-age groups. Activities involving a wide range of materials should promote talk. There should be a balance between individual activities and those that nurture collaboration and discussion, such as dramatic play, block-building, book-sharing, or carpentry.

Remember that parents, caregivers, teachers, and guardians are the chief resources in language development. Children learn much from each other, but adults are the main conversationalists, questioners, listeners, responders, and sustainers of language development and growth in the child-care center or classroom. Continue to encourage interaction as children come to understand written language. Children in the primary grades can keep developing oral abilities and skills by consulting with each other, raising questions, and providing information in varied situations. Every area of the curriculum is enhanced through language, so that classrooms full of active learners are hardly ever silent.


Brain Readiness

Young children are hard-wired to learn language in the first few years of life. When frequently exposed to two languages, they unconsciously acquire the second language naturally, applying the same skills they use to acquire their native language. Older children and adults have to learn the language consciously by studying it. Children use the deep motor area of the brain, which controls unconscious actions, to absorb a second language, according to Dr. Paul Thompson, neurology professor at UCLA. After age 11, centers in the brain responsible for language acquisition stop growing rapidly and language acquisition becomes more difficult 2.


Is it really easier for a child to learn a second language?

We've all heard the common myth: kids learn languages easier than adults. But is it true? Discover why and how you can still learn languages as an adult.

We’ve all heard a common complaint among adults about learning a language that goes something like this: “I wish I had started to learn this language as a child. Kids learn languages so much easier.”

Since this belief is so pervasive, it must be true, right? Turns out it’s actually wrong.

While children do have certain advantages when learning a second language, like being more adept at speaking without a foreign accent, they don’t have it inherently easier. In fact, some studies actually suggest that you may be better off learning as an adult.

After all, some people are able to become fluent in just three months. It usually takes kids until they are 5 or 6 before they are truly speaking their first language fluently!

So, why does it seem easier for a child to learn a second language? How much of this language learning myth is true? Below we outline a couple ways that kids and adults differ in learning languages and how that affects each one's ability to learn efficiently.

[See also: Our complete toolkit for How to learn a language on your own]


Building Blocks for Learning to Read

To learn how to read, children need to be aware of some fundamental processes first.

Phonemic Awareness

This is where learning to read starts. Phonemic awareness means understanding that speech is made up of individual sounds. It is a critical part of reading readiness, so it is often a focus of early learning programs.

Alphabetic Awareness

Since writing isn't speech, phonemic awareness isn't enough to allow children to learn to read. In order to learn to read, children must be able to recognize that the marks on a page represent the sounds of a language.

Those marks, of course, are letters. This is more than just memorizing the alphabet. Learning the alphabet is part of reading readiness, but to be able to read, children must be able to do more than simply memorize the letters. They must also be able to identify which sounds in the language (phonemes) go with which letters.

Memorizing letters and sounds is a more difficult task that memorizing the names of objects like animals. Animals are concrete things—they can be seen and they can be pictured. For example, you can point to a cat and say "cat" to help your child connect the word to the animal.

You can point to pictures of cats or other objects to make your child connect the words to the objects. But sounds can't be pictured, so memorizing which sounds go with which letters is a more abstract process than memorizing the names of objects. The best we can do is use a picture of a cat to illustrate the sound of "C."

Memorizing the sounds that go with the letters of the alphabet is even more difficult because there is not an exact correlation between letters and sounds. English has about 44 sounds, but only 26 letters to represent those sounds.

Some letters represent more than one sound, as we can see from the letter A in the words father and fat. But other letters seem unnecessary since the sounds they represent are sounds that other letters represent. For example, we could just as easily spell queen "kween" and we could spell exit "egzit."

Sounds to Word Awareness Blending

As difficult as it might be to match all the sounds to the right letters and memorize them all, learning to read requires even more. Children must also be able to link printed words to sounds. That is more complex than it sounds because a word is more than the sum of its letters.

The word cat, for example, is made of up three sounds represented by three different letters: c-a-t. Children must be able to recognize that these sounds blend together to form the word cat.

Making the connections between sounds and printed words is so complex that we still don't know exactly how children do it. But when they are able to manage it, we say they have "broken the code."


Children take longer to learn two languages at once compared to just one -- don't fret

Worldwide immigration patterns are increasing the number of children who grow up exposed to two languages, a circumstance that provides numerous benefits as well as some challenges. Because bilingual children's input is divided between two languages -- the majority language of the country where they reside and their family's heritage language -- on average, they receive less input in each language compared to children who receive all of their input in just one language. As a result, bilingual children develop each language at a slower pace because their learning is spread across two languages.

A leading psychologist and language development expert at Florida Atlantic University says, "Don't worry," and reassures parents, teachers and clinicians that it is perfectly normal for bilingually developing children to take longer because they are learning more. In a review published in the journal Child Development Perspectives, Erika Hoff, Ph.D., a psychology professor and director of the Language Development Laboratory in FAU's Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, examined research on the course of dual language growth among children in immigrant families. She focused on children exposed to two languages from birth and identified quantity of input, quality of input, and children's use of language as factors that influence language growth.

Hoff's review of the research shows strong evidence that the rate of language growth is influenced by the quantity of language input. Her findings challenge the belief, held in and out of scientific circles that children are linguistic sponges who quickly absorb the language or languages they hear and will become proficient speakers of two languages so long as they are exposed to both at an early age.

"One clear implication of studies of bilingual children is that we should not expect them to be two monolinguals in one," said Hoff. "The bilingual child, like the bilingual adult, will develop competencies in each language 'to the extent required by his or her needs and those of the environment.'"

The findings indicate that the quality of language exposure is also important. Hoff argues that immigrant parents should use the language they are most comfortable speaking when they interact with their children. They should not be told to use English just because it is the language of the host country if their own English proficiency is limited.

"To support bilingual development fully, children's exposure to each language should come from highly proficient speakers," Hoff said.

The research shows that children also need to use a language in order to acquire it. In bilingual environments, children can choose the language they speak, and when one language is more prestigious than the other, they choose the more prestigious language. Bilingual development is supported when both the host and heritage languages are valued by society and children have opportunities that encourage them to use both languages.

Prior research has shown that French-English bilingualism is achieved more successfully in Canada than is Spanish-English bilingualism in the United States, and that the equal prestige of the two languages in Canada plays a role. In Canada, children also may have greater access to highly proficient speakers of both languages because both languages are national languages.

"Children from immigrant families need strong skills in the majority language to succeed in school, and they need skills in the heritage language to communicate well with their parents and grandparents," said Hoff. "Bilingualism is an asset for interpersonal, occupational, and cognitive reasons. Children who hear two languages from birth can become bilingual, even if that outcome is not guaranteed."

Hoff's findings suggest that bilingual children's competencies, in addition to reflecting their communicative needs, also reflect the quantity and quality of their exposure to each language.

"These findings repeat conclusions from studies of monolingual development that language acquisition depends on the quantity and quality of language experience and the opportunity to participate in conversation," said Hoff.

This research is supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (HD068421) awarded to Hoff.


Infants already babble in their mother tongue

As babies, we can hear all of the 600 consonants and 200 vowels that make up the world’s languages. Within our first year, our brains begin to specialise, tuning into the sounds we hear most frequently. Infants already babble in their mother tongue. Even newborns cry with an accent, imitating the speech they heard while in the womb. This specialisation also means shedding the skills we do not need. Japanese babies can easily distinguish between ‘l’ and ‘r’ sounds. Japanese adults tend to find this more difficult.

Even newborns cry with an accent, imitating the speech they heard while in the womb (Credit: Getty)

There is no question, Sorace says, that the early years are crucial for acquiring our own language. Studies of abandoned or isolated children have shown that if we do not learn human speech early on, we cannot easily make up for this later.

But here is the surprise: that cut-off is not the same for foreign language learning.

“The important thing to understand is that age co-varies with many other things,” says Danijela Trenkic, a psycholinguist at the University of York. Children’s lives are completely different from those of adults. So when we compare the language skills of children and adults, Trenkic says, “we’re not comparing like with like”.

When a family moves countries, the children often learn a language faster – but that may be because it’s more necessary to their survival (Credit: Getty)

She gives the example of a family moving to a new country. Typically, children will learn the language much faster than their parents. But that may be because they hear it constantly at school, while their parents might be working alone. The children may also feel a greater sense of urgency since mastering the language is crucial to their social survival: making friends, being accepted, fitting in. Their parents, on the other hand, are more likely to be able to socialise with people who understand them, such as fellow immigrants.


During the first year of a child’s life, parents and carers are concerned with its physical development during the second year, they watch the baby’s language development very carefully. It is interesting just how easily children learn the language. Children who are just three or four years old, who cannot yet tie their shoelaces, are able to speak in full sentences without any specific language training.

The current view of child language development is that it is an instinct – something as natural as eating or sleeping. According to experts in this area, this language instinct is innate – something each of us is born with. But this prevailing view has not always enjoyed widespread acceptance.

In the middle of last century, experts of the time, including a renowned professor at Harvard University in the United States, regarded child language development as the process of learning through mere repetition. Language “habits” developed as young children were rewarded for repeating language correctly and ignored or punished when they used incorrect forms of language. Over time, a child, according to this theory, would learn a language much like a dog might learn to behave properly through training.

Yet even though the modern view holds that language is instinctive, experts like Assistant Professor Lise Eliot are convinced that the interaction a child has with its parents and caregivers is crucial to its developments. The language of the parents and caregivers act as models for the developing child. In fact, a baby’s day-to-day experience is so important that the child will learn to speak in a manner very similar to the model speakers it hears.

Given that the models parents provide are so important, it is interesting to consider the role of “baby talk” in the child’s language development. Baby talk is the language produced by an adult speaker who is trying to exaggerate certain aspects of the language to capture the attention of a young baby.

Dr Roberta Golinkoff believes that babies benefit from baby talk. Experiments show that immediately after birth babies respond more to infant-directed talk than they do to adult-directed talk. When using baby talk, people exaggerate their facial expressions, which helps the baby to begin to understand what is being communicated. She also notes that the exaggerated nature and repetition of baby talk helps infants to learn the difference between sounds. Since babies have a great deal of information to process, baby talk helps. Although there is concern that baby talk may persist too long, Dr Golinkoff says that it stops being used as the child gets older, that is, when the child is better able to communicate with the parents.

Professor Jusczyk has made a particular study of babies” ability to recognise sounds, and says they recognise the sound of their own names as early as four and a half months. Babies know the meaning of Mummy and Daddy by about six months, which is earlier than was previously believed. By about nine months, babies begin recognizing frequent patterns in language. A baby will listen longer to the sounds that occur frequently, so it is good to frequently call the infant by its name.

An experiment at Johns Hopkins University in USA, in which researchers went to the homes of 16 nine-month-olds, confirms this view. The researchers arranged their visits for ten days out of a two week period. During each visit, the researcher played an audio tape that included the same three stories. The stories included odd words such as “python” or “hornbill”, words that were unlikely to be encountered in the babies’ everyday experience. After a couple of weeks during which nothing was done, the babies were brought to the research lab, where they listened to two recorded lists of words. The first list included words heard in the story. The second included similar words, but not the exact ones that were used in the stories.

Jusczyk found the babies listened longer to the words that had appeared in the stories, which indicated that the babies had extracted individual words from the story. When a control group of 16 nine-month-olds, who had not heard the stories, listened to the two groups of words, they showed no preference for either list.

This does not mean that the babies actually understand the meanings of the words, just the sound patterns. It supports the idea that people are born to speak, and have the capacity to learn language from the day they are born. This ability is enhanced if they are involved in conversations. And, significantly, Dr Eliot reminds parents that babies and toddlers need to feel they are communicating. Clearly, sitting in front of the television is not enough the baby must be having an interaction with another speaker.

Questions 29-34

Complete the summary below. Choose no more than THREE WORDS AND/OR NUMBERS from the passage and write them in boxes 29-34 on your answer sheet.

The study of 29 ……………….. in very young children has changed considerably in the last 50 years. It has been established that children can speak independently at age 30 ………………. and that this ability is innate. The child will, in fact, follow the speech patterns and linguistic behaviour of its carers and parents who act as 31 ………………..

Babies actually benefit from “baby talk”, in which adults 32 ……………….. both sounds and facial expressions. Babies’ ability to 33 ……………….. sound patterns rather than words comes earlier than was previously thought. It is very important that babies are included in 34 …………………

Questions 35-40

Do the following statements agree with the views of the writer in the passage “How babies learn language”?

In boxes 35-40 on your answer sheet write –

YES if the statement agrees with the writer
NO if the statement does not agree with the writer
NOT GIVEN if there is no information about this in the passage

35. Children can learn their first language without being taught.
36. From the time of their birth, humans seem to have an ability to learn language.
37. According to experts in the 1950s and ’60s, language learning is very similar to the training of animals.
38. Repetition in language learning is important, according to Dr Eliot.
39. Dr Golinkoff is concerned that “baby talk” is spoken too much by some parents.
40. The first word a child learns to recognise is usually “Mummy” or “Daddy”.

29. language development
30. 3 or 4/ 3 – 4 years
31. models
32. exaggerate
33. recognise
34. conversation/ interaction/ communication
35. YES
36. YES
37. YES
38. NOT GIVEN
39. NO
40. NO



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