At around seven month’s gestation, the brain’s sensory pathways for hearing are activated and start to become sensitive to the rhythmic qualities of the particular language spoken at home. During the first six or seven months after birth, babies gurgle and babble, making the same babbling sounds regardless if their families speak French, Urdu or Japanese. By the end of the first year, babies have tuned into the language they hear and adapt their babbling sounds—they actually stop producing sounds they are not hearing.
Janet Werker and a team of scientists at University of British Columbia found that language acquisitions begin even before birth, with babies picking up on languages heard in the womb.36 They found a correlation between a “sucking reflex,” which apparently shows interest, and being spoken to in different languages.
On average, babies who heard mostly English before birth gave more strong sucks per minute when hearing English than when they heard another language. Babies who were regularly exposed to at least two languages before birth gave the same number of sucks upon hearing both languages.
Realizing the “bilingual” babies could have shown equal interest in both languages simply because they did not know the difference, the researchers devised a second experiment to determine if the babies were able to tell the languages apart. The infants heard sentences being spoken in one language until they habituated. Then they either heard sentences spoken in the other language by the same person, or they heard sentences spoken in the same language, but by a diff erent person. Babies sucked more when they heard the language change, but not with a different person speaking the same language, suggesting they are able to tell the difference between two languages.
After birth early language exposure at home predicts the size of children’s growing vocabulary and later verbal skills37 and literacy skills.38 One U.S. study stated that by age 4, children in affluent families have heard 30 million more words and have vocabularies that are three times larger than children in low-income families.39 Children with poor verbal skills at age 3 are likely to do poorly in language and literacy when they enter school, and many go on to have poor academic careers.
A Quebec longitudinal study (Étude longitudinale du développement des enfants du Québec) reported that children’s (expressive) language prior to school entry is the best determinant of reading performance at the start of primary school.40 Joint reading activities from 18 months contribute to the child’s reading performance, regardless of the family’s socioeconomic level. Family practices surrounding literacy— more conversation, more books and reading and less television and computer games—also help to maximize the child’s vocabulary.
Similar findings are reported from a New Zealand longitudinal study, Competent Children, Competent Learners.41 Children who were low achievers (at age 5 years) were likely to remain well below the median for all reading and mathematics tests at age 14 and 16, regardless of family socioeconomic status. The study began in 1993 with 500 children who were almost 5-years-old and in early childhood education programs to investigate if and how early childhood education helps children become lifelong learners. Researchers collected data about cognitive competencies, social and communication skills and home and education experiences. The findings reveal the difficulty of raising low levels of performance, particularly after age 8. The study points to the value of early childhood education programs that include high-quality staff:child interactions, staff who join in the children’s play and a ‘print-saturated’ environment. Assessing children and what they need on the basis of actual performance, is more accurate than making decisions based on social risk indicators.
Next: 7. Learning, behaviour and health
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