Since becoming a parent, I’ve gotten even more interested in children, their language acquisition, and their development, so I recently read The Scientist in the Crib by Alison Gopnik, Andrew N. Meltzoff and Patricia K. Kuhl.
The book is about how children learn about the world and what we adults can learn from studying children, especially babies. There’s a chapter particularly about how children learn language. But what is actually involved in learning a tongue? “First, you have to break up the continuous stream of sounds into separate pieces and identify each sound accurately...Then you have to string the sounds together into words...Then you need to understand all the nuances of meaning each word can have...And, finally, you have to figure out something about the larger intent of the sentence.” (p. 92-3) Gopnik, Meltzoff and Kuhl call it “code-breaking” and say how challenging it is, but “most complicated of all, people speaking different languages hear sounds totally differently.” (p. 96)
But what does language do for us anyway? Well, ”the most obvious advantage of language is that it lets us communicate and coordinate our actions with other people in our group…The fact that we speak different languages also lets us differentiate between ourselves and others…And the development of language is probably linked to the development of our equally distinctive ability to learn about people and things. It allows us to take advantage of all the things that people before us have discovered about the world.” (p. 100)
Here’s how it works: “Babies master the sounds of their language first, and that makes the words easier to learn….Babies seem to learn some general rules about the words in their particular language before they learn the words themselves.” (p. 109) As parents, we need to talk to our babies often, especially in a slow and slightly exaggerated way, so they can hear the sounds and then start understanding the words.
If, like me, you hope your child will learn a language from a young age, when should you start? The earlier the better. “Children who learn a second language when they are very young, between three and seven years of age, perform like native speakers on various tests…If you learn a second language after puberty, there is no longer any correlation between your age and your linguistic skill…Early in development we are open to learn the prototypes of many different languages. But by the time we reach puberty, these mental representations of sounds are well formed and become more fixed, and that makes it more difficult to perceive the distinctions of a foreign language.” (p. 192-3)
The Scientist in the Crib is an interesting, if somewhat repetitive, book, and I recommend it to parents in particular.