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Pathways to Language: From Fetus to Adolescent (DEVELOPING CHILD)

Despite millennia of child rearing, we have only a limited understanding of how babies take such gigantic strides in cognitive, linguistic, reasoning, and planning ability. The lightning pace of development in these early years coincides with the formation of a vast skein of neural circuits. At birth the brain has nearly a hundred billion neurons, as many as in adulthood. As the baby grows, receiving a flood of sensory input, neurons get wired to other neurons, resulting in some hundred trillion connections by age three.

Children in Poverty

Different stimuli and tasks, such as hearing a lullaby or reaching for a toy, help establish different neural networks. Circuits get strengthened through repeated activation. The sheath encasing nerve fibers—made of an insulating material called myelin—thickens along oft-used pathways, helping electrical impulses travel more quickly. Idle circuits die through the severing of connections, known as synaptic pruning. Between the ages of one and five, and then again in early adolescence, the brain goes through cycles of growth and streamlining, with experience playing a key role in engraving the circuits that will endure.

How nature and nurture combine to shape the brain is nowhere more evident than in the development of language ability. How much of that comes hardwired, and how do babies acquire the rest? To learn how researchers are answering that question, I visit Judit Gervain, a cognitive neuroscientist at Paris Descartes University who has spent the past decade probing the linguistic acumen of children, ranging in age from days to a few years.

I follow her into a room down the hall from the maternity ward. The assistant hurriedly removes the cap, and the dad cradles the baby. After they leave, Gervain, who had just become a mother a few months earlier, tells me that such failures are not uncommon. Another newborn—also accompanied by dad—is wheeled in. The baby sleeps through it. Gervain and her colleagues have used a similar setup to test how good newborns are at discriminating between different sound patterns. Using near-infrared spectroscopy, the researchers imaged the brains of babies while they heard audio sequences.

In some, the sounds were repeated in an ABB structure, such as mu-ba-ba; in others, an ABC structure, such as mu-ba-ge. The researchers found that brain regions responsible for speech and audio processing responded more strongly to the ABB sequences. In a later study they found that the newborn brain was also able to distinguish between audio sequences with an AAB pattern and those with an ABB pattern. Not only could babies discern repetition, they also were sensitive to where it occurred in the sequence. Gervain is excited by these findings because the order of sounds is the bedrock upon which words and grammar are built.

That the baby brain responds from day one to the sequence in which sounds are arranged suggests that the algorithms for language learning are part of the neural fabric infants are born with. Babies are starting to learn grammatical rules from the beginning. Researchers led by Angela Friederici, a neuropsychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, have found evidence of such comprehension in an experiment with four-month-old German babies exposed to an unfamiliar language.

In the first round of testing the babies showed a similar brain response to both correct and incorrect sentences. A few rounds of training later, the infants exhibited very different activation patterns when they heard erroneous constructions. In just 15 minutes the babies appeared to have absorbed what was correct. Researchers have shown that children around two and a half years old are savvy enough to correct grammatical mistakes made by puppets.

By the age of three most children seem to master a considerable number of grammatical rules. Their vocabulary burgeons. This flowering of language ability comes about as new connections are made among neurons, so that speech can be processed on multiple levels: sound, meaning, and syntax. Scientists have yet to unveil the precise map followed by the infant brain on the path to linguistic fluency. You also need input.

Perceptual and Motor Development Domain - Child Development (CA Dept of Education)

On my way to Leipzig to interview Friederici, my attention is drawn to a mother and her young son, engaging in conversation on a shuttle bus at the Munich airport. Seated in a row ahead of me on the flight, the two keep up an unflaggingly spirited exchange. When we land, I learn that the mom, Merle Fairhurst, is a cognitive neuroscientist who studies child development and social cognition. More than two decades ago Todd Risley and Betty Hart, both child psychologists then at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, recorded hundreds of hours of interactions between children and adults in 42 families from across the socioeconomic spectrum, following the kids from the age of nine months to three years.

Studying the transcripts of these recordings, Risley and Hart made a surprising discovery. Children in well-off families—where the parents were typically college-educated professionals—heard an average of 2, words an hour spoken to them, whereas children in families on welfare heard an average of words. By the age of four this difference translated to a cumulative gap of some 30 million words.


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The kids in low socioeconomic families were being raised on a poor linguistic diet. The amount of talking parents did with their children made a big difference, the researchers found. The kids who were spoken to more got higher scores on IQ tests at age three. They also performed better in school at ages nine and ten. Exposing children to more words would seem simple enough. Kuhl and her colleagues were exploring a key puzzle of language acquisition: how babies home in on the phonetic sounds of their native language by the age of one. In the first few months of their lives, babies show a knack for discriminating between sounds in any language, native or foreign.

Between six and 12 months of age, however, they start losing the ability to make such distinctions in a foreign language, while getting better at discriminating between native language sounds. In their study the researchers exposed nine-month-olds from English-speaking families to Mandarin. Some of the children interacted with native Chinese-speaking tutors, who played with them and read to them.

And a third group heard only the audio track.

Family Income's Critical Role in Child Development

After all the children had been through 12 sessions, they were tested on their ability to discriminate between similar phonetic sounds in Mandarin. Instead they found a huge difference. The children exposed to the language through human interactions were able to discriminate between similar Mandarin sounds as well as native listeners. But the other infants—regardless of whether they had watched the video or listened to the audio—showed no learning whatsoever.

After gaining power in Romania in the mids, the communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu implemented drastic measures to transform the country from an agricultural society into an industrial one.

To increase the population, the regime limited contraception and abortion, and imposed a tax on couples older than 25 who were childless. Thousands of families moved from villages to cities to take jobs at government factories. It was only after Ceausescu was deposed in that the outside world saw the horrific conditions in which these children were living. Becoming a Grammatical Being 6. Beyond the Sentence 7. Atypical Language Development 8.

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Pathways to Language: From Fetus to Adolescent (Developing Child) (The Developing Child)

Rethinking the Nature-Nurture Debate Further Readings Index What People are Saying About This Karmiloff-Smith is widely recognized as one of the most important theorists now working in early cognitive development, for her emphasis on the way that many factors move development forward.

With its graceful, lucid style, Pathways To Language takes the reader on a journey, vividly conveying the excitement of all the new discoveries of recent years that have so deeply changed our understanding of what it means to "learn language. A timely, clear, and valuable book, which offers a masterful overview of the many passionately held positions on the origins and development of language. Karmiloff-Smith is widely recognized as one of the most important theorists now working in early cognitive development, for her emphasis on the way that many factors move development forward.

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