The Miracle of Language—How We Acquire It
HAVE you ever been at a loss for words? Such moments are rare, for we usually delight in communicating our thoughts and feelings. Language allows us to do that. One authority asserts: “Thought is impossible without language.”
True, in the animal world, creatures manage to exchange information without words: birds sing, lions roar, dolphins whistle, bees dance. Other creatures use postures and movements, touch and sound—even smell—as communication methods. ‘Keep your distance!’ ‘Look out!’ ‘Come and join me!’ These are animal messages that come across clearly!
Animal communication, though, is quite limited. Language, on the other hand, allows humans to talk about anything they observe or imagine. Education professor Dennis Child thus claimed: “Language is a human being’s finest asset.” But how do we acquire this wonderful asset? And how can parents help their children to develop it?
Language and the Brain
How we learn to talk has intrigued scholars for centuries. Remarkably, young children who are barely able to walk and feed themselves learn to speak without even knowing the rules of grammar and without any special tutoring! Writes linguist Ronald A. Langacker: “[The child] masters . . . a linguistic system. He does this on the basis of indirect and fragmentary evidence, and at an age when he is not yet capable of logical, analytical thought.”
Most scientists thus believe that the ability to learn a language—not the specific language—is inborn, an ability that unfolds during a child’s early years.
At first, though, a child’s brain is too immature to master speech development. This, of course, does not stop a baby from trying. Indeed, some researchers believe that a tiny baby’s babbling is a part of speech development, a rehearsal of sorts for his later enunciating of words. As the baby struggles with vocalization, his brain is also rapidly preparing itself for speech. Though a child’s body develops relatively slowly in his preteen years, his brain reaches 90 percent of its adult weight by age five. (It reaches its full adult weight by about age 12.) That means that the first five years of life are a critical learning period, particularly the first two.
During that time, billions of nerve cells in the brain’s cortex grow and branch, forming a densely interconnected web. Between 15 and 24 months of age, a dramatic spurt in brain-cell growth occurs. Now the brain is ready to handle the learning of language. Thus, it is critical that a child be exposed to language during these early years.
Interestingly, the Bible speaks of a young man Timothy who was taught the Bible “from infancy.”—2 Timothy 3:15.
Helping Children Develop Their Language Skills
Mothers play an important role in a child’s speech development. A sensitive mother recognizes her baby’s signals and will talk with her baby often, long before it understands what she says. Nevertheless, the groundwork for speech is being laid. Soon the child responds to the mother’s words with words of its own. Researcher M. I. Lisina says: “It is clear that children’s speech emerges mainly as a means of interaction with surrounding people.” So fathers, siblings, grandparents, and friends can also share in the child’s speech development by means of conversation, storytelling, and reading.
Swedish psychologist C. I. Sandström further observed that children who did best linguistically “had on average much better contact with adults. The families usually had breakfast together, and the children were allowed to take part in the conversation.” Conversely, youngsters with poor language ability “usually had breakfast alone” and “did not take part very much in the conversation at supper.” Family togetherness at mealtimes thus encourages language development.
Taking your child with you on outings also provides you fine opportunities to develop his speech by explaining things to him in simple terms. Together, look into the mouth of a flower, watch a caterpillar eat a leaf, or a spider spin its web. Use your child’s natural inquisitiveness to expand his language. Talk about the animals you see at the zoo, the shells and pebbles along the pathways you walk, and the varieties of food you enjoy. True, all of this takes time and patience, but the results are so worth while!
Parents have found another very valuable aid in teaching children at a young age to speak. This is by letting them listen regularly to the cassette recording of My Book of Bible Stories.a
New words, new phrases and expressions, new depths of understanding will not only color your child’s speech but increase his intellectual capacity. And when you show how natural wonders relate to their Maker or discuss God’s purposes, a child’s love and appreciation for the Creator also deepen.—Deuteronomy 6:6-9.
Fortunately, the potential to enlarge the quantity and improve the quality of language is not limited to our youthful years. Each day, we can further perfect our ability to communicate by learning new words and practicing good grammar. In this way, we take part in the continuing miracle of language, and rarely are we at a loss for words.
a Available from the publishers of this magazine.