Think for a moment of the ingenuity of the human race and the development of a diverse array of language systems – more than 6,000! Now, consider how a child born into one of these systems acquires the ability to speak their ‘mother tongue’. It has long been suggested that a child can learn any language that is introduced in the early months and years of its development. There are several theories on how this occurs and are generally rooted in the foundational works of B.F. Skinner, Lev Vygotsy, Noam Chomsky or Jean Piaget or some combination thereof.
What is of significant importance in this discussion, is that neuroscience has demonstrated that the child’s brain remains wide open to input, including language experiences, until about the age of 8 when the ”plasticity” of the brain, its ability to regenerate and adapt to new inputs, starts to atrophy. The child’s brain at 3 years of age has about 50% more synapses than the adult brain! By the age of 8 the brain’s platform, functionality, and anatomical structure have been established and the remaining balance of human growth is built on this foundation. Recent research has begun to suggest and inform the sophistication of this platform and that different languages have different neural foundations.
Furthermore, decades of research has demonstrated that children in this age range are far more perceptive in distinguishing the nuances of sounds than adults. In language, these sounds are termed ‘phonemes’ and each language has its unique distinguishing phonemes. Children are often referred to as ‘sponges’ absorbing all in their surroundings. This is true but they are far more selective in what they retain for future use than we think. They do absorb and store all sounds but if a sound is underutilized over time it is discarded. Furthermore, if these phonemes are not experienced in early childhood they are not readily available in adulthood. Adults do not have the same ability to hear the nuances of the different sounds of a new language thus making it much more difficult to learn – an experience to which most adults can attest. In plain terms – if you can’t distinguish the sounds you hear you can’t reproduce them accurately.
In summary, we can conclude that the anatomy and functionality of the brain’s neural network is more complex as a result of a greater range of languages experienced in early childhood.
Herein resides The Giles School rationale for the French Immersion programme beginning in Pre-K1, Mandarin in Grade One and direct English instruction in Grade 2. Our tagline ‘Simply Smarter’ is inspired by our belief 2+1 is greater than 3!
In this blog, I have explored the notion of Listening (hearing sounds) and Speaking (producing sounds) as the first step in the language acquisition process. An obvious question is what happens when the verbal side of human expression takes on a symbolic or written form and what impact does this have on the development of the child? The next blog will investigate these questions and more.