CURTIN and WERKER: Building blocks of language learning formed in infancy, and video chats can help later on

Suzanne Curtin, Professor of Child and Youth Studies and Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies at Brock University, and Janet Werker, University Killam Professor in the Department of Psychology and Co-Director of Language Sciences at the University of British Columbia, co-wrote a piece recently published in The Globe and Mail about language acquisition in infants.

They write:

“The current pandemic has resulted in many people spending more time at home, more time on the internet, and needing to balance their work and personal lives. In a busy household of caregivers and children, it can be even busier with an infant in the home. The concerns parents feel about providing the best for their very young children can be even more magnified. Time and attention are divided, but infants are remarkably well suited – even in our radically changing home lives – to begin their journey to language learning and literacy.

 While infants are born ready to acquire language, acquisition happens through the social interactions they have with their caregivers. These interactions allow the child to learn not only the words and structure of their language, but also how to become a communication partner. It is the speech they hear – especially as caregivers label and/or talk about objects and events the infant is interested in- that supports the child’s vocabulary acquisition as well as the understanding and use of language. Storybooks and play are also key to providing the foundation for both language and knowledge of the world. Indeed, the OECD 2015 PISA report shows that storybook reading in the preschool years is associated with language comprehension even into adolescence. It is not just what we say, but the way we talk, and the honesty with which we convey our own feelings and stay open to those of our children. These allow a child to understand another person’s emotional state as well as their own, and ultimately be able to talk about both. These behaviors and interactions support not only language, but indeed all aspects of development, and are all part of supporting a child becoming a confident and competent social being.

 The world around a newborn infant is filled with all kinds of sights and sounds. Yet, from birth a newborn is drawn to other social beings and is especially attentive to human faces and voices. A newborn will change their sucking pattern to listen to speech, and their brain will respond differently to speech over other kinds of sounds. Amazingly, they can even discriminate one speech sound from a very similar but different one (e.g. b vs d), and can even do so for sounds not in their native language. Surprisingly, newborns show a preference for their mother’s voice, for the native language, and even stories and songs that have been read or sung by their mother. Thus, as a result of both biology and early experience, all the building blocks are in place very early in life for learning language. In turn language learning supports learning to read, but it is the richness of these interactive experiences with the native language (or languages) that is/are essential to ensure a successful journey.”

Continue reading the full article here.

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