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Language Development

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By Betsy Metzger

“In words are seen the state of mind and character and disposition of the speaker” (Benjamin Franklin).

Language development begins from as early as within the womb, we seem “born to talk” (Gunning, 2003, pg 2). Evidence that a fetus recognizes, listens for, and finds comfort in its mother’s voice is seen soon after birth when an infant will strain to gaze in the direction of his mother’s unique sound over all others; having become accustomed to her mother’s voice while in the womb, the infant finds comfort in her personalized prosody. Correlations between the unique sound, vibrations, lilt, and patterns of the mother’s speech to signs of lowered stress levels in monitored infants are telling: indicating our propensity for, and our ability to influence, the development of what is to be the most amazing and significant mode of communication for most humans: language. Our desire to communicate is evident as we witness infants learning to manipulate their environment through trial and error as they attempt to communicate their desires to those around them. Efforts are seen in the vocal realm as an infants sounds vary from soft coos to piercing cries according to their needs, as well as through body language as they wriggle, kick, or smile.

The processes that influence children’s language and speech development into a tool for social and educational interaction begin before birth. Significant for language development is the critical time for from birth to three years, where the quantity and quality of the language surrounding us determines our social and education linguistic abilities and to a great degree our success in social and educational environments. Our primary caretakers during those first three years, often ones’ parents, with whom we most often interact, influence our language development, either positively or negatively. A child exposed to a positive environment with a high rate of verbal interaction with his caretakers will usually acquire an impressive use of language. Conversely, a child exposed to, well let’s say “inappropriate” language, will acquire an “impressive” use of vocabulary as well! Lastly, a child devoid of exposure to language will be considerably handicapped in their ability to speak or understand language. Therefore, while we may be intuitively language-oriented, we require an environment that fosters communication, and which foments two elements of language development: imitation of those around us in our speech, as well as our acquisition of the skills and comprehension in order to understand or construct linguistically based communications (Gunning, 2005, pg 3).

We have discussed thus far then that even though we are intuitively language-oriented, we must learn how to communicate. While we must acquire advancing skills, healthy humans are born with rudimentary abilities to communicate our most basic needs; we begin to explore communication from our very first wail, every subsequent attempt influenced by the responses we experience. Whether that response is a kind, productive one, an indifferent or counterproductive one, or if there isn’t any response at all, we are learning something about communication, and so that response determines our next effort and our interpretation of how humans communicate, what works and what doesn’t. While these interactions may seem unspectacular, the caretakers response to them is important; upon them depends the child’s progression through the normal stages of social and language development.

Our attempts to communicate by verbal and nonverbal means begin at birth. Infants cry, coo, and moan, they wiggle, twist, kick, reach, and seek; the response of their caretaker sets the stage for further interactions. During the first three years of life, language development can be fostered a variety of ways, many of them are simple and fairly natural or automatic to many primary caretakers. For example, a caretaker can respond to a young child’s vocalization as they attempt to communicate by imitating or echoing the sounds in return, eye contact is already important and fascinating to an infant. Singing to a child is a wonderful way to foster language development; many caretakers naturally sing to young children since it seems to calm and engage them. Finger play, “this little piggy went to market”, for example, is yet another way to entice and engage language development. Caretakers can also positively influence language development as they identify everyday objects encountered throughout the day. Personal experience has taught that most young children seem to enjoy a nearly constant flow of dialogue; they seemingly do not really care what the topic is as much as they crave the process. By age three, most children have learned 1,000 words; this means they have a good idea what the words mean and how to use them (Gunning, 2005, pg 3). This rate of progress explains the demand for constant input.

Research indicates, and my experience supports, caretakers of young children can encourage and provide opportunities for language development significantly by using common sense and courtesy. Welcoming their young charges to participate in dialogues, responding politely and appropriately, and genuinely engaging them in conversation are some of the most effective ways to develop language. By responding appropriately to their verbal and nonverbal cues, we model communication skills. One of the greatest gifts a caretaker can give to a child is also significant in language development, and that is to read to and with them every single day, for at least twenty minutes. The child hears and sees the words as well as contextual clues such as pictures; this means the child is receiving the information in more than one way, culminating to provide an exquisite language and communication skill-building exercise. Besides that, it is a truly enjoyable/gratifying thing to do.

There are many simple and varied ways to foster early language development depending on the age of the child. Infants to young children enjoy receiving a response to their attempts to communicate, for example our imitation of their sounds. They enjoy interaction, especially when they can contribute, along with other children or a caretaker. Examples include singing, finger plays, or rhythmic movements, rhymes, identifying objects, “reading” just about anything along with another person, from picture books to word books, street signs, familiar logos such as McDonalds



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