Language gives mankind the ability to communicate and develop higher learning that far exceeds other species. We are here to understand why exposure to rich vocabulary during the early years is crucial to language development later in life.
The science of language learning
Of all mankind’s inventions, none was more consequential than the birth of language. Before its creation, each person’s knowledge was limited to what they experienced directly. Afterward, someone who learned something could share it with anybody else. In this video, we’ll look at four things known about Language Learning in general and then listen to the story of lucky Lucy and poor Pete to understand the importance of language in everyday life.
Our brain’s foundation is built through experiences early in life. Pat Levitt, from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, studied our brain development over the course of our life extensively. He showed how the brain’s ability to change dramatically drops in the years of life, while the amount of effort such change requires increases. Another research showed that at age 5, 90% of a kid’s brain had been formed. If during these years, the child is blocked from receiving stimulating experiences, the language center and other parts of the brain are likely to remain weak for life.
We learn language socially, by observing and imitating others. Some 1000 years ago, German emperor Friedrich II wanted to prove the opposite and show that we develop language naturally all by ourselves. He made his nannies raise some children. They were allowed to feed and clean them, but not to interact socially or ever speak a word. Not one child learned to speak, but instead, they all died. For the same reason, toddlers can’t learn language via tape or technology. They need to be motivated through a human relationship. Then they pay attention and learn.
Our language brain grows strongest in year one. If we study the brain’s development by the rate of new synapse formation over the first 11 months of life and then the next 15 years, we can see how much the first 5 years matter. The growth in the part of the brain responsible for language peaks between birth and age three. During this critical period, children can learn a new word every 90 minutes and several languages simultaneously.
Our sensory pathways, responsible for vision and hearing, peak before. Which makes sense, because we need to see and hear to imitate language. A 4-month-old infant, for example, if raised bilingually by a British mom and a Chinese dad, can already differentiate between two languages just by observing the lip movements of their caregivers. Higher cognitive functions, such as logical reasoning, peak only once we have the words and know the symbols to make sense of our world.
Language makes our world
Rich language skills allow us to really listen, to speak well, to enjoy reading, and master writing. They can create an entire world around us. As the German philosopher, Wittgenstein said, “the limit of my language is the limit of my world”. Let’s take, for example, the word “daycare” center. Some people think of it as a preschool, the Irish call it play-school, and the Germans invented the word Kindergarten. Only if we know all 3 words, can we understand what’s possible.
Story of Lucky Lucy and Poor Pete
Now let’s listen to the story about Lucky Lucy and Poor Pete. Two children were raised in two very different ways. Lucy is raised by her mother. The mother is an average native English speaker who knows around 20,000 different words. Pete’s parents hire a nice nanny from a foreign country. Instead of speaking in her native language, the nanny is told to talk to Peter only in English. While her everyday English seems okay, she actually knows only around 5,000 words – ¼ of what Lucy’s mom knows.
Year One is when the language brain is developing the strongest. If Lucy is awake half of the time her mom speaks, she will hear around 10,000 words per day, with maybe 2,500 being directed at her – directed language is what matters. Whenever her Mom connects a word with actual experience, Lucy learns its meaning.
Pete hears English only when the nanny deliberately speaks to him – around 1000 words a day. But not only is the quantity lower, but also the quality. As the nanny is not fluent, there is a chance that many words come across broken.
On their first birthday, both kids can say “Mama” and “Papa”. What we don’t see is that Lucy actually already knows many many words, even though she can’t say them but Pete’s language universe is more limited. When Lucy and her mom look at picture books, her mom points out what they see. A little monkey is also a gorilla, an ape, a clever animal that uses tools, climbs trees, and lives with his mama and papa in the rainforest of Africa.
When Pete looks at a picture book, his learning is limited by the language of the nanny. The same monkey is just “cute” and eats bananas. To compensate, he’s given a language app. But as Pete lacks the foundation, he doesn’t understand a word. To him, it’s just a bunch of new sounds strangely connected to colorful characters.
On their second birthday, Lucy already knows well over 200 words – the amount where children start to learn rules and apply grammar. Pete knows less. Sometimes he gets frustrated because he can’t express himself. Lucy likes to go with her Mom into the park. Sometimes they watch the old man play chess. She doesn’t understand the game but knows there are pawns, rooks, knights, a queen, a king, a bishop, and a horse. One day, when she will learn the rules, it will be easy because she sees each figure clearer. Her understanding of their special skills is obvious. For lack of language, Pete sees just a big checkerboard and some wooden figures, which look all quite the same: pawns, knights, bishops, rooks. Learning the rules later will be hard for Pete. All the figures look so similar. How could they do different things?
On their 3rd birthday, both can say their own name and form sentences. Lucy’s vocabulary now holds 1,500 words. Pete got 500 to make sense of this world.
In year 4 they enter kindergarten. When Pete stands in front of the big shelf, he sees different wooden blocks, the ball, some other toy, a horse, and the yellow digger. When Lucy stands in front of the same shelf she sees circles, triangles, squares, a basketball, the red pinwheel, the beige rocking horse, and the carton box of the lego technic digger. At playtime, Lucy understands what others are talking about and often takes the lead by suggesting a new idea. Pete often doesn’t understand what she means. If the group discusses something for longer, he zones out because he has trouble following the conversation. By the end of the year, Lucy knows 3500 words, whereas Pete knows only 1000 words.
Lucy now forms more complicated sentences in perfect grammar. In the evening, her mom reads bedtime stories to her. Words she’s missing, she learns out of context. As a native speaker, the mom can raise and lower her voice, making the stories exciting. Fairytales become alive in her head, and Lucy learns to imagine and to think creatively. Pete still speaks in more simple sentences, and his grammar is not perfect. When his nanny reads to him, the voice is more monotone. It’s more boring and paying attention is more difficult. Words he’s missing often remain missing. By the end of the year, Lucy knows 6000, and Pete knows 2000 words.
To understand why the actual difference in language abilities between the two is even larger than it seems, let’s imagine that words are nothing but tools that help us encode the world, form thoughts, structure ideas, and then communicate with others. With 6000 words, compared to 2000 words, Lucy’s toolbox is now 3 times the size. Lucy has a huge head start as she is entering elementary school.
Einstein, by the way, as a child seldom spoke. One interesting anecdote goes like this: “As he was a late talker and hardly spoke at the age of 7, his parents were worried and tried many things to get him to speak. At one point, they were afraid that he had learning disabilities. At last, at the dinner table one night, he broke his silence to say, “The soup is too hot.” Greatly relieved, his parents asked why he had never said a word before. The young genius replied, “Because up until now, everything was in order.”