Brain Development in the Early Years of Life and Its Relation to Language Acquisition

Our senses are relatively undeveloped when we are initially born, though quickly develop to catch up to the demands and stimuli of the environment. Specifically, the brain undergoes some of the greatest development among the other systems of the infant. The brain develops quickest due to the numerous different tasks it must perfect to perform effectively in order to survive and mature further in life. Some of these tasks include basic survival functions while others, such as language acquisition, are equally necessary to function in daily life. There has been much theorizing regarding this specific topic, though Lenneberg distinguished one of the most important and prevailing assumptions. He proposed to us that there is a critical learning period for language acquisition that occurs from the early years of life to around age three or four. It is during this time that learning a language is most likely to occur and is easiest for us, as our brains are undergoing simultaneous motor and cognitive development. This can be attributed to the increasing brain specialization that is occurring and the resulting pruning effect wherein experiences shape the kind of synapses present and strengthens them in order to get better at a specific ability.

As stated previously, it is during this time that simultaneous development is occurring throughout language as well as motor and cognition. This is important to note because of the relationship between the acquisition of language, our memory abilities, and the cognitive capacity required for this process. This concept is detailed thoroughly throughout Maria Konnikova’s “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades” article. In a nutshell, the article explains the importance of handwriting in relation to retaining memories. Handwriting is just the written form of language production, and retaining the memories detailed within the words helps promote further language comprehension and in turn, further language production. Retaining information and rules regarding a specific language is necessary in order to become fluent, and in order to do this, encoding as both short-term and long-term memories is necessary.

The vocabulary that is ultimately learned however, will not only depend on a biological function such as language acquisition, but also relies heavily upon the culture wherein the child is being raised. Slight differences amongst cultures account for great differentiation between the ultimate vocabulary and patterns of speech adopted. In Western cultures, children are generally found to be more talkative with a preference to embellish and give long, detailed narratives, allowing for more practice with the language. On the contrary, in Japan, talkativeness is perceived more negatively and therefore children speak less and in briefer sentences. Western and specifically American cultures also apply topic-centric learning whereby they teach with a focus on a single, clearly defined subject in order for kids to learn skills to describe these concepts more deeply. For African-Americans however, topic-associating learning is more common to de-emphasize focus on a single topic and to allow greater freedom of expression. Lastly, in regard to grammar learned, American children are taught and learn with a focus on noun vocabulary whereas
East Asian children typically learn verb vocabulary first and with a heavier emphasis. These slight cultural differences provide correlation with the later fully developed language abilities of an individual.

As it seems, both genes and the environment play a crucial role on determining one’s language comprehension and production. Most of the necessary development occurs within different times of the first year of life, with further fine-tuned development beginning in the second year of life. It is extremely important that certain areas of the infant brain such as the hippocampus, pre-frontal cortex, and the auditory and visual systems develop to full capacity in order to comprehend and produce language. During the first few weeks of life, vision is still quite underdeveloped compared to its full potential so the infant temporarily relies more heavily on their better developed auditory system to begin to learn the concept of and comprehension of language. There is a relative time-table of language development that occurs within the first year of life that details how the infant begins with simple cooing sounds, progresses to babbling and making gestures, further on toward comprehension of words and simple sentences and ultimately to the first spoken word occurring around 12 months of age. The first steps taken toward learning a language is when the infant listens to and eventually will copy the words and manner of speaking of the parents. Both at this time of life and throughout the lifespan, language comprehension exceeds language production, as demonstrated in the time-table as comprehension occurs before production of the first word.

There are measurements available to assess infant development progress, most notably the Bayley III Scale. This scale looks at ages 3 months through 3.5 years of age and assesses the progress of development of cognitive, language, and motor development. This scale formally measures the concepts detailed in the beginning of my post by focusing on and assessing the speed of habituation . Though this scale is not predictive of the future, it is a useful tool to determine children with low developmental progress in order to intervene with attempts at treatment.

Language development is a critical piece of our overall development, and specifically within the first few years. The fact that we have a genetic basis for our development that may then be altered by simple conditions of the culture and environment lead to drastic differences in one’s comprehension, production, and manner of speaking a language.