Language allows humans to talk about anything they observe or imagine. Education professor Dennis Child thus claimed: “Language is a human being’s finest asset.” But how do we acquire this wonderful asset? And how can parents help their children to develop it?
How we learn to talk has intrigued scientists for centuries. Remarkably, young children who are barely able to walk and feed themselves learn to speak without even knowing the rules of grammar and without any special tutoring! Writes linguist Ronald A. Langacker: “[The child] masters . . . a linguistic system. He does this on the basis of indirect and fragmentary evidence, and at an age when he is not yet capable of logical, analytical thought.”
Most scientists thus believe that the ability to learn a language—not the specific language—is inborn, an ability that unfolds during a child’s early years.
At first, though, a child’s brain is too immature to master speech development. This, of course, does not stop a baby from trying. Indeed, some researchers believe that a tiny baby’s babbling is a part of speech development, a rehearsal of sorts for his later enunciating of words. As the baby struggles with vocalization, his brain is also rapidly preparing itself for speech. Though a child’s body develops relatively slowly in his preteen years, his brain reaches 90 percent of its adult weight by age five. (It reaches its full adult weight by about age 12.) That means that the first five years of life are a critical learning period, particularly the first two.
During that time, billions of nerve cells in the brain’s cortex grow and branch, forming a densely interconnected web. Between 15 and 24 months of age, a dramatic spurt in brain-cell growth occurs. Now the brain is ready to handle the learning of language. Thus, it is critical that a child be exposed to language during these early years.