Children are Citizens of the World: Born with no Languages

Children are citizens of the world: Born with no Language. Storytelling helps in language Development !

I often get this response from parents who haven’t been to our storytelling sessions that their child is too young to understand what we do and also that their child doesn’t understand English (the language we conduct our sessions in). Some say that their child doesn’t sit still and is not ready for storytelling yet and they’ll come back when the child is older. Well I am ever so tempted to give them a long lecture on how incorrect their perception is but I prefer to write it here, hoping they will chance upon this article somehow and perhaps understand how children are citizens of the world and are able to hear ALL sounds of every language.

According to Dr. Patricia Kuhl, Co-Director of The Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at The University of Washington and co-author of the book The Scientist in The Crib, “Research and experiments prove that babies in cribs behave like scientists. They are not only learning as a tape recorder would record sound or video information but they are learning by taking very complicated measurements on the things that they see and hear. Long before they utter intelligible words, babies are absorbing and processing all kinds of information, including the patterns and nuances of adult speech. In fact, careful analysis of infant babbling reveals that 20-month-olds can separate the distinct vowel sounds of their native tongue.”

Interestingly, babies start processing sound in the last ten weeks of pregnancy. A foetus has the ability to hear and learn information and recognise sound transmissions. When they are born babies can hear all sounds and distinctions of all languages whereas adults are limited to the cultural/native languages they get conditioned to.

Have you ever observed a grown up, mostly mothers, in conversation with their babies? The conversation usually goes like this,
“Hiiii-iiii-iiii baaaayeeee-beeee. Aweeeee wh-aaaaaat doooooo youuuuu waaaaant? Woooooould yooooouuuu liiiiiikeeeee thiiiiiiiiis?”

This high-pitched sing-song style of talking to babies, and unconsciously stressing on vowels, is a fascinating language and also has a name – it is called motherese, or parentese. And guess what? This infant directed speech is doing two things: cleaning up our own speech and helping babies map sounds of language. This is called phonetic transcription. Interestingly, parentese is now being widely used by speech therapists for children with speech and language disabilities.

Parentese increases a baby’s attention, it is emotionally satisfying and has linguistic information that is simpler for the brain to process. However do not mistake parentese with baby talk. Baby talk is usually gibberish that sounds like this, “ooooollleeey! Aaaa goooo goo”, apart from having an entertainment value for everyone, not just the baby, baby talk doesn’t help much. However parentese has, more often than not, prompted late talkers to start talking.

Babies are a lot better than grown-ups at learning new languages. Biologists call the first three years of a child a critical period and language is one of the best examples. From 0-7 years children are phenomenal at their abilities to simply absorb information about a language by just listening to it. As the child moves to puberty, where another revolution is going on, the absorption and retention ability completely changes.

I come from a Hindi speaking family, where 60% of the conversations at home happen in Hindi. My son Viraaj who is 2.7 years old is absolutely fluent in both Hindi and English. I introduced him to English by way of books and reading aloud to him. I also tried to make bilingual conversation with him, stressing more on English, and he picked up both the languages very smoothly.

Very often parents don’t introduce a foreign language to a child thinking that the child will get confused. An example from my life would help prove this otherwise. I have observed something very interesting with Viraaj. When in a new setting, he usually takes a minute or so to gauge the language (Hindi or English in this case) the group members are conversing in and then automatically begins speaking to them in that language. In case someone in the group switches their language he replies to them in the language being spoken to. Nobody has taught him that but it is great to see that he is in no way getting confused.

So parents, I repeat, that the little baby in the crib and the spirited toddler who cannot sit still even for a minute are actually little scientists and their brains are developing in leaps and bounds.

Now that we know we all have birthed little Einsteins, and after discovering their tremendous language learning abilities, we might decide to stick them up in front of a computer or a tape recorder that talks to them in Spanish, Mandarin or French. But here’s the catch, my friend, learning in a live situation has shown better results. In fact studies show that there is zero learning when the learning process is passive. The human brain is a wonder, it knows when to switch on and when to switch off. When learning occurs in a live, one-on-one situation, the foreign language fluency can even match up to the language skills of children growing up in foreign countries.

According to Dr Patricia Kuhl, “The brain switches on during social interaction. People need people to learn, at least when they are young.”

So what is, mostly, the best way to introduce children to language development?
The answer is Storytelling.

Storytelling and social interaction set in motion the emerging abilities in a child. Conversation skills, early language development, and the inputs of conversational partners have a strong influence on what a child learns. It is scientifically proven that babies who have been introduced to storytelling in their early years are usually more precocious.

So whether your child understands the language the story is being told in or not and whether your child is busy running around and, you think, not adsorbing anything or not listening to a word – remember that your child is listening and learning. The latter most definitely.

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Rohini Vij

Rohini is a professional storyteller, educator, listed & certified Jolly Phonics UK trainer, curriculum developer, parenting coach, founder of NutSpace. She is on a mission to raise readers and is actively engaged with curriculum development for schools and her own ed-tech platform - Nutspace Edtech.

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