Saturday, April 23, 2011

The 7 Steps to Language Learning

Just as an infant must first drink milk, before eating solids, prior to the brain processing complex language abstractions, the networks for basic language foundations must be first laid down. All higher circuits build upon whatever the lower brain circuits have developed earlier, but those circuits must be pre-existing or there will be little on which to build. Infants and toddlers learn language in this recommended sequence of developmental events

1. Hear songs, children’s lullabies, and music, which teach infants the distinct phonemic elements – the building blocks – of the local language. To build a foundation in the language, an infant must hear the sounds that are most useful to their language. Songs for children, characteristically stress the high frequency/high utility sounds and grammatical patterns found in the local/regional language. (The sense of hearing goes “on-line” at 7 months in utero, when fetues begin eavesdropping on the language of the locality into which they will soon be born.)

2. Sing those songs themselves and learn how to produce the sounds via mimicry -- watching others. With their budding "mirror neurons" active, infants fixate on the lips and mouth of a singer (or speaker) and mentally “rehearse” how he/she would produce those same sounds well before the infant is capable of physically replicating the songs with voice. They begin to “babble,” or practice the language.

3. Listen to, repeat, and then recite children’s poetry where they begin to notice the similarities in sounds (words/word sounds that rhyme) by practicing the primary phonetic elements.

4. Listen to short stories emphasizing sentence structure, grammar, syntax, and the predictable nature of language (subject-verb agreement, the word order for adjectives and the nouns they describe, etc.) to learn language structure.

5. Repeat/re-tell stories in their own words making personal sense of words, content, and context. Oral language develops our “phonological loop,” where a child begins to listen to his own voice while speaking, and later, while reading. Words are used to think, not just to read, as we have learned. A limited vocabulary is a crucial factor underlying failure in school (particularly for disadvantaged students.) The “context processor” in the brain constructs an on-line, coherent interpretation of what is being heard. If he is fortunate enough to have a lengthy personal background where others have read to him, his phonological loop will more readily integrate those past language experiences into future language production. For that child, learning to read is a skill that develops considerably faster than for others. Children don’t learn exclusive from listening to stories. They benefit more from the give-and-take in discourse about the stories. That is where they learn how to use language.

6. Draw pictures of story events, objects, and characters, where children learn to create mental pictures in their “mind’s eye.” Nouns are typically more readily activated in the mind than words describing intangible concepts. Drawing will bring the abstract closer to mind. Drawing does for the brain during the day what dreaming does for the brain at night. Pictorial representations and symbols (art) have been part of the human experience for far longer than the printed word.

7. Begin reading and writing with symbolic language. Now, the child is ready. For boys, this may take 6-7 years.