Today, Erica Hayes shares:
This chapter was packed with interesting information about brain development in babies and how it impacts language development. Here is my attempt to summarize all of the good info!
What helps a baby to achieve optimal brain development? Nature or nurture? Genetics or stimulation from the environment? Well, we all know it is both. While we are unable to change a child’s genetics, we can change the stimulation that a child receives and increase the outcomes for that child. The author points to a couple of important factors in infancy that are important foundational pieces in increasing the child’s readiness to receive information. First, it is important to reduce stress in the baby’s environment. High levels of stress can increase “stress hormones” which can negatively change the make-up of the baby’s brain. Secondly, it is important that the parent’s relationship with the child is loving and nurturing. For those “thirty million words” to have the strongest impact on the child, the child needs to hear them in the context of a loving relationship.
A baby’s brain develops at an incredible rate. Up to the age of three, a baby’s brain is making 700-1000 neural connections each second! An important part of development is the pruning of the unnecessary neural connections to help the brain work more efficiently. The period in which this happens, is the time when a baby is primed to receive environmental stimulation and have optimal learning. Dr. Suskind explains how this period of time is so critical in her work. She tells the story of a Palestinian family that brings their twenty-year-old son in for a cochlear implant. She had the difficult task of being sure that the family would have “realistic expectations” for the results of the procedure. Since this young man was well past the period of greatest neuroplasticity, he could be expected to respond to sounds, but he would no longer be able to process spoken language in the same way a toddler receiving a cochlear implant would. Therefore, it would be unlikely that he would learn to speak. The pathways that allowed him to process spoken language would have been eliminated in that pruning process since he was not using his brain for that purpose. Dr. Suskind explained that it would be like if she herself went to Palestine and expected to be able to understand and speak Arabic just because she could hear it.
Dr. Suskind repeatedly tells the importance of adequate language stimulation in the early years. Even skills that are learned much later (such as reading) are tied to that early stimulation. Children must have the building blocks that are acquired early in life to build on for more complex, later developing skills. Imagine the challenge that a child who is deaf and uses ASL to communicate has learning to read, when he has not heard the language nor uses the language to communicate.
When it comes to language learning, baby’s brains are wired to hear the differences in various languages. As the neuroplasticity of their brains decreases, it becomes more difficult to process the differences in the sounds of different languages. Parents who uses “baby talk” with their babies, help their baby learn the language by slowing and exaggerating speech. So it is good to encourage parents to talk to their baby’s in this way. It is also important to encourage parents to limit time in front of the TV. While children are exposed to language while watching TV, it is clear from research that it is language that is heard during social interactions that children learn from. Is all hope last for those children past the optimal learning period? Research shows that in some areas, such as the processing of visual and musical information, that their can be ways to go back and optimize learning once again. This gives hope that we can find ways to get back in an increase language learning in those children that show deficits following a lack of adequate stimulation early in life.