How Young Children Learn Language

  • Grades: PreK–K

In the early childhood classroom, silence is not golden. Spoken words are opportunities for learning that should take place throughout the day - especially during conversations between children and between teachers and children.

Human language is a remarkable way to communicate. No other form of communication in the natural world transfers so much information in such a short period of time. It is even more remarkable that in three short years a child can hear, mimic, explore, practice, and finally, learn language.


Language Learning
There is no genetic code that leads a child to speak English or Spanish or Japanese. Language is learned. We are born with the capacity to make 40 sounds and our genetics allows our brain to make associations between sounds and objects, actions, or ideas. The combination of these capabilities allows the creation of language. Sounds come to have meaning. The babbling sound "ma - ma - ma" of the infant becomes mama, and then mother. In the first years of life children listen, practice, and learn. The amusing sounds of a young toddler practicing language (in seemingly meaningless chatter) is really their modeling of the rhythm, tone, volume, and non-verbal expressions they see in us.

Language -with all of its magnificent complexity- is one of the greatest gifts we give our children. Yet, we so often treat our verbal communication with children in a casual way. It is a misconception that children learn language passively. Language acquisition is a product of active, repetitive, and complex learning. The child's brain is learning and changing more during language acquisition in the first six years of life than during any other cognitive ability he is working to acquire. How much easier this learning process can be for children when adults are active participants!

Adults help children learn language primarily by talking with them. It happens when a mother coos and baby-talks with her child. It happens when a father listens to the fractured, rambling, breathless story of his 3-year-old. It happens when a teacher patiently repeats instructions to an inattentive student.

Working With Language Delays
It is very common for teachers in early childhood classrooms to have children with speech and language delays. The process of learning language can be impaired in many ways. These can include difficulties in hearing, problems in making associations between sight and sound, attention deficits, and a limited background of experience. A child's language skills are directly related to the number of words and complex conversations they have with others. In order to learn the relationship between sounds and objects- a child must hear. And then make the association between the sound and what it symbolizes. If a child hears few words, if a child is rarely read to, sung to, or talked with, he will not have normal language development. Children growing up in verbally and cognitively impoverished settings have speech and language delays. In more extreme situations, children neglected by their caregivers and rarely spoken with can have completely undeveloped speech and language skills.

Fortunately, the parts of the brain responsible for language are very malleable. Given opportunities to hear, talk and have complex conversations, these children can catch up. The challenge for the early childhood teacher is to make sure that these children have many developmentally appropriate language activities. It is important that concerns about delayed language skills are shared with the family and other school personnel in order to properly diagnose potential causes. Many parents are inexperienced and may not be aware of what is "normal" language development at any given age. Early childhood classrooms are one of most important settings for early identification of language problems.

What You Can Do
reate conversation buddies. Talk with children and encourage them to have conversations with each other. Several times during the day, help children "discuss" various topics with their conversation buddies. Topics might include what they did during the weekend, what they thought of a story, who they know that reminds them of a character in a book you just read to them.

Introduce words by theme. Use word games to help the children learn to rhyme, understand opposites, find as many words to describe an object as possible, and learn the names of new objects. You can make this more interesting by picking a theme to guide this. For example, cook up a delicious snack in the classroom and explore words such as ladle, strainer, colander, and cutting board.

Engage children in listening exercises. We often forget that language is both receptive and expressive. Make sure that children don't just mimic words and learn to say things. It is essential that children are listening, receiving accurately and processing effectively what they hear. Introduce exercises where children are asked to repeat back what they heard you say (you will often be amazed at how varied and inaccurate their interpretations can be). Have children relate key elements of a story or an activity. And emphasize to children the importance of listening to their conversation buddies.

  • Subjects:
    Communication and Language Development
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