Thursday, February 16, 2012

Language Development

I've been interested in linguistics for over 15 years & have studied first language acquisition as well as child development more recently in university. Having a toddler who's starting to talk has been a fascinating experience & it's been great to see what I learned about in school in real life on a daily basis. I've had a lot of conversations with people about first language acquisition & have noticed a major gap between the current scientific theories on how we learn our first language & what's common knowledge. I'm not claiming to be an expert, but I thought I'd share some of what I've learned from my readings & courses.

There is still a major debate on how much of language is really innate & how much is learned. (Just google Chomsky + Universal Grammar & you'll get more dry theoretical pissing contests to read than you ever wanted) It seems pretty clear however that we must be born at least somewhat 'pre-programmed' to learn language, given the amazing complexity of vocabulary, grammar & pronunciation that children gain a command of in just a few short years. From some of the conversations I've had with other parents & grandparents, it seems like many people think that children are essentially born blank slates & we need to explicitly teach them to speak. While children do learn from their environment in the sense that they pick up the language they're surrounded by & the vocabulary they hear most often, it's not really learning in the way that many other skills are. Children are rarely taught grammar explicitly, yet they use it correctly (mostly) by the time they go to kindergarten. There's no need to drill your child with flash cards or withhold things until they pronounce something right. They're going to learn to say it right eventually & unless there really is a problem (like stuttering, a speech impediment or a cleft palate, for example) you don't need to work on it at all. In fact, punishing a young child for not articulating words correctly could be harmful to the trusting relationship you want to develop with them.

This is not to say that there's nothing you can do to affect your child's language development, however. The best ways to help your child's vocabulary grow & encourage them to use language to communicate are simple: talk to them, particularly about things they're interested in & read them books. 'Educational videos' or DVDs for toddlers or babies are a waste of money if you think they're going to do any more than enthrall your baby for 20 minutes. Fine if you just need to distract them so you can get a shower, but don't expect your kid to actually learn anything from them. Human contact is the way we learn language.

A lot of parents get worried when their kids aren't talking much by a certain age. I think this is partly because of the massive industry around encouraging parents to buy products to 'improve' their children. It's also hard when you're following the dates given in all the baby development books or on the websites & your child is later than the 'official' age. When you hear that the average kid says 50 words at 18 months of age & yours only seems to say a few, you worry. I can relate--it was hard waiting for Sprout to start walking. I read that about half of kids start walking by 12 months, but he made us wait another five months after that until he decided to try upright mobility. The fact of the matter is, some kids do things early, some kids do things late. Even if your kid doesn't really talk much until he's two years old, it's unlikely that there's anything wrong with him. I know waiting an extra six months feels like an eternity when they're this age, but by the time they're five or ten years old, the exact age that they hit fifty words is pretty much irrelevant.

To sum up (because this post is getting looooong), I'd say there was a constant thread that ran through the courses on first language acquisition & early childhood development that I took. It was basically this: your kid will turn out just fine if you do what comes naturally. Love him unconditionally, talk to him & read him some books.

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