Beth Fleming, Family Life Specialist
Iowa State University Extension
Recent brain research has provided some incredible insights into language development, the gift that differentiates humans from other species and allows us to think, imagine, and express ourselves. There are "windows of opportunity," or critical periods in a child's life when the brain is biologically best equipped to learn language.
With technological breakthroughs such as cochlear implants and MRI's and other imaging machines, scientists at the Indiana University School of Medicine can follow what occurs in the development of language. Each child has more than 50,000 nerve pathways that can carry sounds from the human voice from the ears to the brain. The brain encodes the words and actually rearranges its brain cells into connections or networks to produce language.
If a child hears little or no human sound, the brain waits in vain and eventually will "retire" these cells from this function and give these cells a different function. By age 10, if the child has no heard spoken works, the ability to learn spoken language is lost.
In the Indiana study, implants used in young deaf children to introduce human sound actually changed the brain structure so that these youth could begin constructing a vocabulary. The "use it or lose it" principle applies to the brain and language development. A University of Chicago study showed that babies whose mothers talked to them more had a bigger vocabulary. By 24 months, the infants of less talkative moms knew 300 fewer words than babies whose mothers spoke to them frequently. Babies are "listeners" and spoken language reinforces brain connections, which encourage more language development.
Another study that scanned brain activity of children revealed that between the ages of 4 and 12 an enormous amount of brain restructuring takes place. Depending on a child's experiences, the brain is deciding whether to keep or eliminate connection. If the child is receiving rich, sensory stimulation, a surge of learning takes place.
Brain research clearly indicates that language development must be fostered early in children or be impaired or lost. Here are some suggestions for parents and educators to nurture the brain in this area:
Article written by: Beth Fleming in Ames Tribune. Sources: "Family Information Services", "Inside The Brain" by Ronald Kotulak, and research findings by Dr. Bruce Perry, Baylor Medical School.