Kids, Language & Brains


Lo-tech Language for Kids

This is no attempt to minimize the power of computers in our lives.  Young children can already manage them quite impressively, even if they're only playing games.  So, what's the rub?  If young children are going to acquire another language or two, taking them to the computer is not the right choice.  Computers are machines and children don't learn language from machines. It takes older, more specifically motivated persons to learn language via machines: Read adults.  And even adults have a hard time staying motivated when working solely with machines.  Hence the big ad budgets for Rosetta Stone et al. Machines/computers certainly have their value in giving us adults access to 2nd language learning, but children will only engage in language with living people who speak with them, listen to them, respond, asking and answering questions. Children need and enjoy the give and take that happens only when language is used as the social medium it is. So, if you want your children to learn a 2nd or 3rd language, find a person fluent in the language(s) and encourage them to interact with your children. You'll be amazed at how quickly your children pick up on the pronunciation, intonation and correct usage, just by following the lead of their very human resource! That person is what Chris Lonsdale in his TedX session refers to in the blog below as Finding Our 2nd Language Parent.  For more on his presentation:


Born to Language 2

The critical periods of language development, or windows of opportunity, are triggered by inhibitory cells which temper neural activity.  Not only does the maturing brain slow down its synaptic activity, the regions activated will differ depending on the aspect of language focused upon and the timing of that focus at the point when things are most plastic.  Karin Stromswold, professor of psychology and cognitive science at Rutgers University, explains why children learn language at record speed.  She points out that though their vocabularies are still limited, they already know a surprising amount about the morphology and syntax of their language. They may omit words and endings but three and four year olds usually say the words in the correct order.   Her research suggests that the more formal aspects of language (syntax, morphology, and phonology) may have a stronger genetic component than do the social aspects of language (vocabulary, discourse and pragmatics) which are more influenced by the postnatal environment.  Finally, it's good to remember that while babies enter the world primed to learn language, they can't do it on their own. Engaging with others to practice human speech helps shape their newly forming neural connections.  Susan Karcz, Brain in the News, January 2014.


Born to Language 1

While still in the womb, babies are sensitized to the rhythms of their mother's language; and so at birth their brains are primed to acquire language, to build the new synaptic connections that will help them process the stream of information they glean from what they hear, see and touch.  Highly plastic, their brains form many, many neural connections.  Over time and exposure to environmental influences and experience, their brains will fine tune these connections by paring away what's not useful so they can rewire the connections to better serve the native speech and language.  Stimulation is critically important, especially during the so-called windows of opportunity.  Babies exposed to family members talking directly to them during their first six months of life will more readily form the strong neural connections necessary for future language development.  Without this kind of stimulation, an infant will still learn a language, but on a less-than-ideal foundation.  Susan Karcz, Brain in the News, January, 2014.


Why Phonics?

Beginning readers who focus on letter-sound relationship, or phonics, increase activity in the area of their brain wired for reading.  That area, the left side of the brain with its visual and language regions, responded clearly in a study co-authored by Prof. Bruce McCandliss of Stanford's Graduate School of Education and the Stanford's Neuroscience Institute.  This study, an example of cognitive neuroscience connecting to educational research, demonstrates why support of phonics-based reading instruction has shifted from theory to practice. One key insight zeroes in on how a teacher chooses to present new materials to students.  Opting for the best instructional strategies can support the brain changes that underlie the development of learning. Therefore, if the way a learner focuses attention during learning is going to have a profound impact on what is learned, there is no underestimating the importance of skilled teachers in helping children focus their attention on precisely the most useful information.   Find journalist May Wong's article at www.DanaFoundation, June, 2015.