When Does Language Development Begin?
Language is a complex, specialized skill, which develops in the child spontaneously, without conscious effort or formal instruction, is deployed without awareness of its underlying logic, is qualitatively the same in every individual, and is distinct from more general abilities to process information or behave intelligently. (Pinker, 1994, p. 18)
The development of language in infants occurs on approximately the same time line across different cultures. Newborns are sensitive to nuances in language and begin to discriminate the speech sounds that are part of the language spoken in their environments. By the time an infant reaches 3 months of age, she has already focused on the speech sounds she hears, including the patterns of accents, syllables, rhythms, and intonations of language. Jusczyk (2005) reviewed thirty years of research and notes that changes in how infants process different aspects of their native language occurs between 7 to 11 months of age.
Kuhl and colleagues (2001) found that language learning begins as soon as infants hear language. In the first year of life, infants create "maps" of the phonetic units in the native language that they hear. By 9 months of age, infants in English-speaking families listen longer to English works, whereas Dutch infants show a preference to listen to Dutch words. These and other studies point to the finding that infants, in comparison to adults, learn language more easily and naturally.
Studies have also shown a clear relationship between the amount that a mother talks to her child and the size of the child's vocabulary (Huttenlocher et al., 2002). The more sounds a child hears, the larger her vocabulary. The sounds of words builds up neural circuitry for learning more words and new sounds (Begley, 1996). By 1 year of age, most children are connecting words with meaning, knowing that puppy refers to their dog, ice cream is something good to eat, and bottle holds something to drink.
The implications of these findings of language development support what many early childhood educators have long practiced—talking with an infant is important to her development. Babbling and cooing as forms of communication encourage adult interaction and shape language development. Object-naming by adults, an infant's ability to study and understand objects, and social interactions contribute to an infant's ability to learn words (Hollich et al., 2000). During the early months of life, auditory connections are formed in the brain and they affect language development, vocabulary, and use of language for the child's entire life.
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