Children and learning of languages.....Dr. B.J.C. Perera Consultant
PaediatricianLearning of languages is a thing that is taken for granted by most people. However there are some fundamental considerations and many other intricacies when one thinks about the learning of languages by children. It is completely and unequivocally true to say that all languages, whether written or spoken, are symbolic expressions of thought. Indeed without the ability to think, it is impossible to even contemplate that there can be any sort of functioning of the brain that is able to handle even the rudiments of a language. Each language uses a unique set of sounds or written characters which is specific to that language. It has been conclusively proven in many studies that babies are born with the ability to distinguish all of them. However, this ability tends to weaken with age as time goes by. Without proper stimulation, the aptitude to handle languages is liable to wane in the course of time.
All languages, as we know them today, fall into two main divisions. They are receptive language which implies understanding what is said, written or signed and expressive language which consists of the ability to speak, write and sign. Language acquisition is the orderly way of the processes through which humans develop the ability to handle the different aspects of a language. By itself and by common inference, language acquisition refers to first language acquisition, which involves infants’ achievement of the ability to handle their native language. In addition, second language acquisition deals with acquisition of additional languages in both children and adults. Whether they speak early or late, are learning one language or more, are learning to talk along typical lines or are experiencing difficulties, the language acquisition of all children occurs gradually through interaction with people and the environment. This is the crucial stimulus that is required for the development of language skills.
The process of language acquisition is one among the leading aspects that distinguish the human race from other creatures and even from their closest ancestors such as some species of primates. While many forms of other animal languages and vocalisations exist, production of such primitive languages is very often fixed, is monotonous and does not vary appreciably across their own cultural groups. Indeed, some comprehension of these animal languages is known to be a bit flexible and it has been recognised that some primates could even learn to pick up bird signals. However, the complexity, the referential richness and social contextual variations of human language are quite unique and are not exhibited by any other species. Any human language, ranging from the Queen’s English to the most rudimentary dialects of the primitive tribes in some remote areas of the world, is so full of the opulence of the ability to communicate. In such a perspective, all human languages are absolutely and remarkably exceptional and distinctive.
The best time to learn a foreign language seems to be between birth and age seven. While new language learning is easiest up to age 7, the ability markedly declines after puberty. Babies learn language when people speak that language. Three month old babies know hundreds of sounds they hear people speak around them and babies do listen to the sounds other people make. In this process the brain pathways grow stronger for that language. If they are exposed to just one language, the brain pathways for other languages get weaker because the brain does not need them. By adult life the brain gets rid of those pathways it does not need. It is quite remarkable that babies being raised bilingual, by simply speaking to them in two languages, can learn both in the time it takes most babies to learn one. On average, monolingual and bilingual babies start talking around age 1 and can say about 50 words by 18 months. Babies and little children seem to learn languages just like ducks taking to water. Many researchers believe that parents should follow biological principles and expose youngsters to different languages quite early. If the parents speak a second language, it is considered to be best to speak it at home or find a play group or caregiver where the child can hear another language regularly. It is perhaps quite surprising how children do seem to pick it up like sponges. The way the people around the child, particularly the parents, engage with him or her, will determine the path that language development takes in the vital first five years. It is essential that those around enjoy this exciting period in the child’s development. It is best to talk in a natural way about what he or she is doing, seeing and hearing. A good method is to listen to the sounds and later the words he or she says, and respond, so that the child knows that someone is listening. It is also very useful to read stories in different languages together from an early age and make communicating fun.
Adults do help babies learn language just by the way they talk. Most adults talk differently to babies than to other adults. They talk more slowly, say words more clearly and speak in a higher toned voice. These changes make it easier for babies to learn a language. Hearing what our words sound like helps babies get ready to talk. Adults often repeat words when they talk to babies. This repeating gives babies extra chances to listen to our words. This extra listening helps the language pathways in the brain grow stronger and stronger. That is just one reason why babies like to hear the same story or song over and over. However, progress should be steady. Children do learn at different rates. Some are fast language learners and some are slow. Thus it would be desirable not to compare one child’s language development with another’s. The important thing to watch for is that language development proceeds steadily, not whether it is fast or slow.
New research is showing just how the brains of children can become bilingual so easily. Many scientists believe that these findings would eventually help the rest of us adults to learn a new language a bit easier. It is not impossible that the magic that kids apply to this learning situation, some of the principles at least, can be imported into learning programs for adults. For the majority of adults, mastering a dominant language gets in the way of learning a second less familiar one. The brain seems to tune out of sounds that do not fit. This process could perhaps be re-programmed to enable adults to learn newer languages.
Scientists may finally have an explanation as to why children reign supreme when it comes to learning new languages. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and animation technology to study the brains of children, researchers have discovered that children are processing language information in a different region of the brain than adults. There are different areas in the brain controlling different functions in our lives. When we brush our teeth, sign our names or drive a car, we do not consciously think of our actions. These are examples of automatic brain function. When children acquire language, this same part of the brain, called the "deep motor area", is what they use. In that sense, for children, language learning is virtually like second nature. However, when adults learn a second or third language, their brains operate differently. The window of opportunity to imprint information and skills in the deep motor region of the brain is widest during early childhood and are nearly shut by the time of age 18. Therefore, adults have to store information elsewhere, perhaps in a more active brain region. As a consequence, adults usually think sentences through in a native tongue and then translate them word-by-word, instead of thinking automatically in another language like a child would. Even for people with extensive training in a second language as an adult, who feel their speech is automatic, on a neurological level the brain is still operating differently from a child’s.
Research into the neurology of language acquisition is proving useful because understanding the "brain geographic" differences of language learning in children versus adults may influence educators and their decisions about foreign language instruction. As an example, simply teaching young children the sounds and accents of other languages at an earlier age may be valuable, even if they are not getting full instruction in the language. Learning those sounds later in life, especially well into adult life, from a neurological perspective, can be much more difficult.
There is a commonly held mythical belief that if one tries to teach a child several languages, the child may get confused and fall back in their learning abilities. There is ample evidence that this is far from the real state of affairs and that learning several languages can be quite beneficial. One aspect of this is that many studies have demonstrated the benefits of second language learning not only on student linguistic abilities but also on their cognitive and creative abilities as well. Children who learn a foreign language, beginning in early childhood, demonstrate certain constructive cognitive advantages over children who do not. Research conducted with young children shows that those who are bilingual develop the concept of object permanence at an earlier age. Bilingual students learn sooner that an object remains the same, even though the object has a different name in another language. For example, a foot remains a foot and performs the function of a foot, whether it is labelled a foot in English or as un pied in French.
These ramifications have a significant bearing on the situation in Sri Lanka. It is the considered opinion of many experts that all Sri Lankan children should be taught all three national languages, Sinhala, Tamil and English, from a very young age. This will make them better men and women in the long run and would help to dispel the many ethnic and cultural problems that exist in our society. It would certainly be a lasting, sustained and long-term solution to the ethnic conflicts that have plagued this beautiful country for several decades in the past.
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