How Emergence of Language Supports Mathematics and Science Learning (page 3)
...language is a major instrument of thought.—Jerome Bruner (1966)
The perception of sounds begins before birth. In the womb, the child can hear sounds. The mother’s voice resonates throughout her body. The child recognizes her voice and at birth feels an attachment to it. Over the next several months the child learns to recognize attitudes from voices. A pleasant voice initiates giggles; a harsh voice causes flinching or crying. Soon it is obvious that the child recognizes voices of familiar people.
Experiences of infancy occur with limited verbal development. Although infants have not yet developed the mental processes that allow them to verbalize with words what they are thinking, they do respond to a variety of stimuli. They are learning how to react to the world around them and how the world reacts to them.
Observing small infants’ vocalizations, body movements, and gestures gives us clues about what they are internalizing (e.g., Piaget, 1954). The differentiated crying gives us clues to what they are trying to tell us. They are “saying” that they are hungry, cold, wet, lonely, or frightened. When you talk animatedly or lovingly and soothingly to infants, they sometimes respond excitedly with their whole body.
Adults have wonderful “conversations” with infants by soliciting their reactions to pleasant, enthusiastic talks and actions. Infants respond with laughter and giggles and many physical movements. We view this as the child taking in the experience and appreciating the interchange. The child views this as a form of attention and communication that they are important, involved, cared for, and loved.
Although the development of speech comes between 2 and 6 years of age (Gordon & Williams Browne, 2004), infants have an amazing ability to respond and communicate verbally to people before that time. From crying, to cooing, to babbling, to using one-word utterances, babies experiment with gestures and making sounds with their mouth to communicate meaning for things. For example, a baby may open and close the hands to mean “pick me up,” twist the hand at the wrist to mean “all gone,” or make a sniffing sound to mean “flower.” Adults replicate these gestures and sounds to communicate with the infant.
Later, babies will imitate the words they hear. They must experiment with making verbal sounds to imitate these words; and they must also develop meaning and understanding for what words represent. In this way, the words they speak communicate their ideas. Words are vehicles for young children as they form and communicate concepts to others. Young children begin to recognize that certain sounds relate to particular activities and meanings. When we analyze the first appearance of syntax, the structure of grammar in a language, we observe an interesting construction—the holophrase (Bruner, 1966) or the one-word utterance. Examples of holophrases are “up,” “drink,” “dog,” “ball,” or “boo.” Oftentimes, these holophrases are emphasized by body movements and gestures, such as pointing or waving. Perhaps “book” is accompanied by holding hands together with the palms up.
When young children put together two or more holophrases such as “allgone,” “gobyebyeinthecarcar,” or “byebye,” they have discovered a newfound power of communication. They have discovered two important properties of language: The combinatorial property pertains to how things or words combine to produce new meaning. The productive property pertains to causing or bringing about action (Bruner, 1966). Toddlers become increasingly capable of using many forms of representation to communicate. Oftentimes they may use body movements and actions if they are struggling for words to represent their thinking. They simply will show in action what they mean. Toddlers represent their ideas about the world through symbolic play (Gordon & Williams Browne, 2004; Trepanier-Street, 2000). Their actions “speak” volumes about what their impressions and experiences mean to them.
It is amazing that children learn to talk so quickly without formal instruction. By age 2 years, most children can verbally communicate with others; and by age 5 years, their language structure is similar to adult language. Children’s first words tend to be nouns such as ball, mama, dada, up, or cracker. At this stage, young children will generalize meaning with the words they use. For example, a 1-year-old may say “cracker” for many different foods. Eventually, “cracker” will be used for only crackers. Or, “doggie” may refer to all four-legged animals. This is the beginning of the development of a broad classification scheme—hallmarks of mathematical and scientific thinking.
Children then develop verb concepts such as “smile” and “drink.” Their verbalization of these terms confirms that they recognize a relationship between the sound of the term and a specific object, person, or event. Making sounds is having a cause-and-effect relationship for children. Such ability to integrate experience and develop concepts with communication is reflected in Dewey’s (1959) conceptualization of learning as “a continuing reconstruction of experience.”
Having developed the skill of verbalizing specific terms, children soon combine words requiring even higher level thinking processes. They can tie nouns and verbs together into a phrase or sentence, such as “Get ball” or “Eat cookie.” These statements indicate that children are using words to form ideas or processes. They can put several terms together to create ideas and relationships. They can start to verbalize the cause-and-effect relationships they have observed and experimented with during their earlier development. They might ask, “How grow?”
Young children also use incorrect forms of words to express themselves. A young child, for example, may say to his grandmother, “Mom-Mom, you are a good cooker.” This evidences the child’s use of adding -er to a word to express action such as player, singer, or worker. The generalization to the word cooker is an interesting phenomenon considering the child, most likely, has never heard cooker used in this way. Making sense of these patterns in the use and form of words is an example of the logic required to understand mathematical and scientific concepts and ideas.
Moreover, comprehension for spoken language is evident when a child hears the word ball and then looks for a particular ball. Learning to link language to impressions and experiences is also important in the development of mathematical and scientific thinking, and requires the same interpretations, understandings, and meanings.
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