Children, I mean.
My gorgeous little granddaughter is two years old today, and what a wonderful opportunity that provides me to reflect on the marvels of children’s ability to wonder and learn. I am forever in awe of their ability to learn language and all its nuances.
Some people say they are “sponges”, but I say they are far more than that. They are creators of their own understandings, learning far more than anyone could ever possibly teach them. From the moment they are born, children are actively seeking to make sense of the world: through their interactions with it and relationships they form in it.
Anna is already using language for a multitude of purposes.
She has an extensive vocabulary which includes:
Names, for example, of
- family members and friends
- fruits and other foods
- animal sounds
- dinosaurs (learnt from her big brother)
- objects in the home and environment
Action words (verbs) including eat, drink, play, read, watch, swim, jump, dance, clean
Adjectives e.g. big and small
Adverbs e.g. fast and slow
Social graces for example greetings like hello and bye-bye, and manners like please and thank you
She sometimes uses one word effectively to convey a complex meaning or thought, but more often now she is stringing together a number of words to form phrases and sentences. She is able to participate in conversations which require an exchange of information or an interchange of questions and answers.
Questions with appropriate words and inflection to:
- be informed e.g. Where’s Mummy?
- request e.g. strawberry please Daddy? play trampoline Mummy?
- interrogate e.g. why you eat pineapple Bob?
Statements e.g. I go sleep my home
She understands the importance of facial expressions and body language that accompany these exchanges. She has learned the sway of accompanying a “please” with a smile and the power of an emphatic “No!”
Although many of her sentences do not contain articles (a, the), prepositions or connectives, her meaning is easily understood in the context of the conversation.
She knows the placement of adjectives before the noun e.g. “big ball”, not “ball big”.
She pretends play, e.g. setting up a group of balls then instructing the adults to “shh”, because the eggs need quiet for hatching.
She has learnt how to follow instructions and take turns in a game e.g. a game of memory turning over the cards to find the matching pairs.
Anna understands far more than she is able to produce. She responds appropriately to the questions, commands and statements of her family, asking for more information and clarification if she needs it. She knows when the sounds are produced in play rather than for meaning e.g. “Billy-bobby-silly-Sally”, and responds with giggles rather than questions.
She is familiar with the language of books and expects books to be a source of pleasure and language.
She knows that songs and rhymes are not conversation and joins in rhythmically and tunefully. At her birthday party, she led the family in singing “Happy birthday” to herself, and did a marvellous job of conducting.
All of these observations reveal but a sample of her actual language learning, glimpsed through the grandmother’s window, you could say, during weekend visits. The parents would be more able to describe in greater detail just how extensive the language development is.
But is Anna’s ability with language remarkable?
Yes, indeed it is. Just as the language learning of every other child is remarkable.
In just two short years Anna, like most other children around the world, has learned the basis of her language. What conditions supported this enormous growth in language learning?
According to research, children are born with an innate ability to learn language. At first they have the potential to learn the sounds, words, grammar and use of any language, but as time goes on their ear is tuned to the language spoken around them, and by the age of one children have learned all the sounds of their native language. However, though this ability to learn language is innate, it doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It occurs in an environment rich in language, and the richer the environment, the stronger, the better the language growth.
Anna is surrounded by a loving family who speak with her discussing the day’s events, explaining information, telling stories and playing imaginatively. They read to her many times a day, and play games that require thinking and talking. This exposure to language, both oral and written, is an important part of her life, every day.
Conditions for language learning
Anna’s environment clearly exhibits the conditions, described by Brian Cambourne, which encourage language learning:
Immersion: Anna is surrounded by language. Her significant adults (parents and other carers e.g. aunt and uncle, grandparents) speak to her: interacting and playing with language. They read stories and sing songs to her. They hold conversations with each other about a wide range of topics. While not included in these conversations, Anna is quietly learning the nuances of adult discourse.
Demonstration: Anna observes adults using language in many different situations and comes to understand the language of different contexts and purposes e.g. greeting friends, shopping, asking for help, giving information.
Feedback: As soon as Anna started to make sounds of her own, her parents provided feedback by repeating the sounds she had made and by adding new ones for her to copy. When she started to say her first words, her parents responded with enthusiasm and encouragement.
Approximation: Anna’s parents accept and respond to the message of her communication, without hint of it being incomplete or incorrect. Instead they support and elaborate, seeing it as part of the development towards language proficiency.
Now that Anna is joining words into phrases and sentences, the adults respond, often with an agreement or explanation, by restating the sentence, and expanding on it, supplying the words not yet part of her vocabulary; demonstrating intuitively the target structures towards which Anna’s language is developing.
The guidance offered by these responses is gentle and intuitive, giving both congratulations on the ability to communicate and reinforcing standard language usage. For example, when Anna says “Apple juice,” the parent may respond, “Would Anna like some apple juice? I will get some apple juice for Anna.”
Expectation: Anna’s parents always expected that she would learn to talk and that her talk would develop through easily recognisable stages. They do not expect her to speak like a university professor at the age of two!
They are also aware that not all children develop language at the same rate, and understand that if Anna wasn’t speaking in sentences at the age when another was, they would just continue to provide demonstration, feedback and support expecting that she would in her own time. While they know that seeking help early if concerned about a child’s language development in these early years is very important, they have no reason to be concerned about Anna’s language development.
Responsibility: Anna’s parents recognise that the responsibility for her language learning rests with Anna. They provide the environment, they model language in use and provide her with feedback and support. They don’t attempt to formally teach her language structures which are not yet part of her developing language.
Use: Anna uses language in real situations for real purposes: to get things done, to ask for help, to think and share.
Don’t you agree it’s a pretty remarkable process?
Children all over the world become proficient language users when they are immersed in rich language environments, often provided intuitively by parents who talk with and read to their children.
Sadly, not all children have the benefit of an environment rich in language.
If we could convince all parents of the importance of talking and reading with their children in these early learning years, we would have far fewer children with delayed learning abilities at school.
How do you think we can help parents of young children understand the difference it could make to the lives of their children, and themselves?
Please share your ideas.