Updated: Mar 20
The ability to learn to talk and use language is an amazing and complex process. But what particular needs do young children have when it comes to learning a second language? In order to determine this, we need to look at brain growth and early language development.
What happens in the brain while a young child is trying to acquire language? Fascinating new brain research in this area is very specific. An infant may be physically capable of producing sound, but without nurturing interaction a language delay is likely. This early interaction actually influences the circuitry, or wiring, in the brain. Language development is dependent on the early neural connections (synapses) that are stimulated through responsive interaction with others. And these early experiences seem to be linked to certain prime times, or optimal periods, for particular aspects of language learning to occur.
During the first few months, a child’s brain is ‘neuroplastic’ or very flexible and responsive. This is no doubt why young infants initially respond to all the sounds of all languages. But this plasticity lessens with age. Early in brain growth, neurons seem to cluster around particular sound patterns called ‘phonemes’. When these patterns are repeated, ‘auditory maps’ are formed, neural pathways are reinforced, and brain circuitry is made more permanent. This allows infants to organise patterns of sounds that they hear within language. By the end of the first year, if certain sound patterns are not heard with regularity, it is very difficult for a child to construct new pathways. This is why it is so difficult to learn another language when we get older. Those pathways will never be as easily formatted as they are in the first twelve months.
As young children acquire language, their brains become increasingly more specialised for this complex task. Increased electrical activity tends to be concentrated in the left hemisphere of the cortex. Increased brain activity and increased language competency are linked in the second half of the first year. Infants join phonemes to syllables and syllables to words. Try to imagine brain dendrites, those ‘magic trees of the mind’, expanding rapidly as a young child makes sense of sounds that they are experiencing. The first word usually arrives at the end of the first year when the child is just at the beginning of a language explosion.
Experience is also related to vocabulary. A toddler’s vocabulary is strongly correlated to how much interaction she has experienced. The words need to be linked to real events. These are the kinds of experiences that create permanent neural connections. Connecting words to pleasant experiences affects memory. A young child is more apt to remember the labels for her special toy or favourite food.
Some debate exists about prime times and optimal periods, particularly in relation to language development. There are two particular events that are critical to brain development and both occur during a child’s first two years. Firstly, the sensor motor systems are strengthened through myalinization and secondly, attachment relationships are established. These two events dramatically influence brain function and growth, and since brain growth is holistic, they must also play a dramatic role in early language acquisition. Both events are very significant to our understanding of critical periods of brain growth.
In my next article, I will share some tips that will help parents gain the maximum value from this particular stage of brain development and enable children to learn effectively.
Source: All images used with permission from Chengzhu
About Huang Ying:
As the Principal of Chengzhu and Mandarin Programmes. Huang Ying has been inspiring learners and teachers for nearly 30 years. She was born and raised in Beijing and worked as a kindergarten teacher for 10 years before becoming a pre-school principal. In 1997, she joined Julia Gabriel Centre and worked in a variety of teaching and leadership roles before becoming the Head of Chengzhu Mandarin Centre, a subsidiary of Julia Gabriel Education, in 2011. She is currently the Principal of Mandarin Programmes for Julia Gabriel Education in Singapore, which includes Chiltern House Preschool. She enjoys sharing her expertise and experience on how parents can support their children’s learning of Mandarin through public events and articles.
Chengzhu supports children’s ability to speak, read and write confidently in Mandarin at every level, ensuring maximum enjoyment of learning in the process. Whether at Chengzhu Mandarin Centre, where children experience full immersion within a dynamic, culture-rich environment from 6 months through to upper primary, or through a comprehensive Mandarin preschool curriculum at Chengzhu Mandarin Kindergarten, the Centre ensures meaningful experiences that place language in context for every child.