Brain Keys Language Development

Beth Fleming, Family Life Specialist
Iowa State University Extension
Ames, IA

Recent brain research has provided some incredible insights
into language development, the gift that differentiates humans
from other species and allows us to think, imagine, and express
ourselves. There are “windows of opportunity,” or critical
periods in a child's life when the brain is biologically best
equipped to learn language.

With technological breakthroughs such as cochlear implants
and MRI's and other imaging machines, scientists at the Indiana
University School of Medicine can follow what occurs in the development
of language. Each child has more than 50,000 nerve pathways that
can carry sounds from the human voice from the ears to the brain.
The brain encodes the words and actually rearranges its brain
cells into connections or networks to produce language.

If a child hears little or no human sound, the brain waits
in vain and eventually will “retire” these cells from
this function and give these cells a different function. By age
10, if the child has no heard spoken works, the ability to learn
spoken language is lost.

In the Indiana study, implants used in young deaf children
to introduce human sound actually changed the brain structure
so that these youth could begin constructing a vocabulary. The
“use it or lose it” principle applies to the brain and
language development. A University of Chicago study showed that
babies whose mothers talked to them more had a bigger vocabulary.
By 24 months, the infants of less talkative moms knew 300 fewer
words than babies whose mothers spoke to them frequently. Babies
are “listeners” and spoken language reinforces brain
connections, which encourage more language development.

Another study that scanned brain activity of children revealed
that between the ages of 4 and 12 an enormous amount of brain
restructuring takes place. Depending on a child's experiences,
the brain is deciding whether to keep or eliminate connection.
If the child is receiving rich, sensory stimulation, a surge
of learning takes place.

Brain research clearly indicates that language development
must be fostered early in children or be impaired or lost. Here
are some suggestions for parents and educators to nurture the
brain in this area:

  • Talk to young children. Because language is symbolic, it
    requires thinking just to “unlock” meanings of
  • Use audio tapes frequently to replace videos or movies for
    entertainment. Fast-moving screen images require little thought
    to process and don't give much time to the cerebral cortex to
  • Limit the use of television. TV is not very symbolic and
    usually requires few mental gymnastics to interpret. Remember,
    when the brain is used to thinking, it actually grows in mass.
  • Introduce another language. Learning a new language becomes
    more difficult after age 12 when the brain's “maps”
    have become more rigid. Young Swedish children routinely learn
    three different languages as part of their early education.
  • Involve older children in discussions and dialogues as an
    every day part of life. Questions such as “What do you think?”,
    “How do you see this?”, or “What might happen
    if…?” help young people listen, process and develop their

Article written by: Beth Fleming in Ames Tribune.
Sources: “Family Information Services”, “Inside
The Brain” by Ronald Kotulak, and research findings by Dr.
Bruce Perry, Baylor Medical School.

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