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Developing Strong Language Skills in Young Children

November, 2009
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Speech and language are essential tools through which humans communicate and share thoughts, ideas, and emotions.Dr. Montessori observed, and modern scientific research has proven, that before age six children are in a special period in their cognitive development during which they acquire language both rapidly and effortlessly. 
This ability to absorb language applies not only to a child’s mother tongue, but to a second or third language as well. In an increasingly globalised world where the role of communication is vital, parents in Beijing have a unique opportunity to develop strong communication skills in their children.

Language is communication based on order,with four aspects of development: listening, speaking, writing and reading. 

Spoken language has an important role in the development of a child’s potential, and parents and teachers contribute greatly to its successful acquisition. In fact, the greatest preparation for reading and writing is done through spoken language, and it must be established before the other three skills can develop. Reading and writing are acquired only when a foundation in spoken language has been established. The ability to communicate well also leads to high self-esteem and confidence, and it orders the mind for more complex and demanding academic skills.

The most intensive period of speech and language development for humans is during the first three years of life, a period when the brain is developing and maturing. Spoken language is not usually formally taught, but absorbed spontaneously. It appears to develop best in a world rich with sounds, sights, and consistent exposure to the speech and language of others.  

The beginning signs of communication occur during the first few days of life when an infant learns that a cry will bring food, comfort, and companionship. The newborn also begins to recognise important sounds in his or her environment and to sort out the speech sounds (phonemes) which will become the building blocks of their future words.  Research has shown that by six months old, most children recognise the basic sounds of their native language. As the jaw, lips, and tongue mature, an infant is able to make controlled sounds, such as “cooing.” 

msb-1sBy this time, an infant usually babbles or produces repetitive syllables such as "ba, ba, ba" or "da, da, da." Babbling soon turns into a type of nonsense speech that often has the tone of human speech but does not contain real words.

By the end of their first year, most children have mastered the ability to say a few intentional and simple words such as “Mama” or “Baba.” Children are most likely unaware of the meaning of their first words, but soon learn the power of those words as others respond to them.

By 18 months old, most children can say eight to ten words, and by age two, most are putting words together in crude sentences such as "more milk." During this period, children rapidly learn that words represent objects, actions, and thoughts.

By 24-36 months, children have for the most part established the patterns of their native language. They can speak in short, full sentences and have a fundamental and effective vocabulary. Children will naturally vary in their development of speech and language; however, there is a natural progression or "benchmark" used by speech and language specialists for mastery of these skills. From age three to five, a child’s vocabulary rapidly increases and, having mastered quite naturally and spontaneously their listening and speaking skills, a child is now ready to write and read.

Before age six, when a child is in the most sensitive or absorbent period for language, two or more languages can be learned simultaneously when the child interacts with speakers of both languages. Communication skills, literacy development, concept formation, subject knowledge and strategy development learned in the first language transfer easily to the second language. It is important, however, that the child has established his/her native spoken language patterns first.

Research has identified cognitive benefits associated with learning a second language. Children with a second language have been found to be more creative and better at solving complex problems, while bilingual people outperform similar monolingual persons on both verbal and nonverbal tests of intelligence. As children grow, the benefits of a second language continue. Studies show a positive relationship between foreign language study and first language achievement, and students who have averaged four or more years of foreign language study typically score higher in math and language on standardised achievement tests.

British researchers have also found that people speaking Mandarin use both sides of their brains to understand the language. This marks a striking contrast with English speakers who only use one side of their brains.

While native speakers of Western languages use their left brain to process language, researchers in the US, Britain and Hong Kong have discovered that people speaking Mandarin use both sides of their brain to process the language. When perceiving lexical tones of Mandarin, the brain uses first the intuitive and creative right brain and then dispatches the signals from the right side to the left. It is thought that learning Chinese characters also helps develop the right brain regions involved in vision not used when learning Western languages, and it stimulates spatial perception. 

So knowing all of this, how can parents in Beijing enrich their child’s language development?

Encourage acquisition of a second language – there is no better environment for this than our highly internationalised community in Beijing. If your child is age six or under then it is the perfect time in their development to acquire an additional language or languages. If your child’s native language is English, ensure that he/she learns Mandarin. Seek out a school with an established, proven bilingual or Dual Language programme. The foundation your child lays in Mandarin will reap countless benefits in communication skills, confidence and achievement in the future. 

Make it a goal to teach your child at least 10 new words a day through conversation and reading. A child should know the name of absolutely everything in the home, garden and classroom. 

Read to your child for at least one hour each day. Reading together broadens a child’s vocabulary, and discussion of the story aids in development of expressive language. It is also an excellent opportunity to deepen your bond with your child.

Listen with interest when your child speaks, and give him/her the opportunity to express interests, thoughts and opinions. This builds both expressive language and confidence in expression.

Turn off the TV! Communication is a two-way exchange of information, and children who watch television excessively miss out on the social interaction, spiritual growthand intimacy that a child derives from family communication.

 By Sharon Keenan and Jean Jone

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