Language Acquisition and its Brain Function

By: Morgan Hecker and Kevin Humphrey

Five tips for parents to assist language development:

1. Talk about anything and everything. Narrate your activities to your child. Talk about what they are eating, where you are going, what they are doing, anything that might be appropriate. Just exposing your child to their native language can be enough to help them learn. Studies have shown that the shear amount of speech that a child hears can influence the rate of their vocabulary development throughout their life. Furthermore, according to childcare experts like The Hanen Centre, talking about so many different things and therefore using many different kinds of words (i.e. object words and action words) helps your child in learning to put together words to create short sentences.

2. Treat them their age. When talking to your child as an infant, use infant directed talk. Speak to them with an affectionate tone. Talk slowly and clearly, and exaggerate the movements your mouth makes to generate speech sounds and the facial expressions that accompany what you’re talking about. The exaggerated movements can help your child to distinguish between the units of speech sounds in your language better. Furthermore, many studies have shown that infants prefer and pay more attention to infant directed talk.

3. Ask questions and find the right level. When talking to your child, especially about past events, asking them questions can really help them learn. In this way, you can fill in blanks for them but still allow them to answer questions and finish the story. In doing this, experts at the Hanen Centre suggest that parents should talk with their child at a level they can understand but still be able to learn from. This serves as a form of scaffolding for you to bring your child up to a level at which they can produce more complicated speech than they could have without your assistance.

4. Follow their attention. It is very important to foster joint attention in your child. Look where they are looking or pointing and talk about the object of their focus. Not only will this help your child have better conversation skills with others in future, but it will also help them learn new words more easily. If the object you are labeling or speaking about is already in their focus, then they have much less chance of confusion as to what in their environment you are naming and describing. Experts of the parenting website Babble also point out that the interest your child already has in what they are focusing on will give them more motivation to remember and learn the words you used in reference to it.

5. Encourage your child. When it comes to teaching your child language, always use positive reinforcement. The childcare magazine, Parents, advises against ever correcting or critiquing your child’s quirky articulations or mistakes. Rather, you should simply repeat the words in their correct form back to your child and praise their efforts. If you criticize their attempts, it is very possible that they may get discouraged and not try as often. Plus, many mispronunciations that children use when they are younger disappear after a while, just like how many young children say ‘pasketti’ but eventually start using the correct form ‘spaghetti’. Also, when your child makes attempts at speech make sure to reward them with your attention, facial expressions, and responses. Positive reinforcement tends to produce the best results when teaching children, and the simplest and best form of positive reinforcement for children is the attention of adults.

With these tips in mind, you can greatly increase language acquisition in a child but how does this work in the brain. The question is how does the fundamental process of language acquisition work?

In most cases of learning new words, we usually learn through repetition. From parents or school, we have been taught through repetition. As many people know, neurons in the brain are making these connections possible and they are the reason why repetition works. Neurons in the brain are connected through synapses, which allow communication through action potentials or electrical signals that are sent between neurons. Inside of the synapses there are neurotransmitters that are passed between neurons that allow the signal to move from one to the other. Synapses originally are weak meaning the signal won’t be fully passes between neurons. As you first learn a new word this is the stage you are at and this is why you can’t learn words instantly. The signal transfer isn’t strong enough yet and it must be strengthened.

Through talking with your child and the repetition of words, these synaptic connections can be strengthened. When neurotransmitters are transferred to receptors, the receiving neuron allows Ca2+ inside which depolarizes or increases the positive charge in the cell. The introduction of Ca2+ activates protein kinases, which in turn phosphorylate receptors to make them more sensitive to neurotransmitters. This increased sensitivity leads to better transfer of the signal also know as long-term potentiation. This is the small-scale basis of how new words are learned. As words are repeated the synapses are strengthened until eventually the neurons become tied together. Strings of these neurons can be attached so that auditory signals can give rise to this process to form a response from the nervous system in the form of words. At the root of language learning this is what happens but when this form of learning is put into practice, it becomes logistically impossible for enough links between neurons to be made to form all of the words that we know and combine them together. There simply isn’t enough space inside the brain.

Theories about how the brain functions have been made that account for this. The Hebbian model is one of the more popular models of how the brain processes language. After studying the brain, there is evidence of specific localized areas in the brain that are used for language processing. Each of these areas has specific importance to language acquisition and speech. These areas also don’t act independently but instead are linked to each other and are influenced by many different parts of the brain. The idea that there are localized regions that influence each other forms the basic principle for the Hebbian model.

We have learned why the idea of repetition is extremely important to learning language because synapses are strengthened through this process but the Hebbian model helps explain why infant directed talk and positive reinforcement may be so important to language acquisition. When talking to an infant and using infant directed talk you usually speak as clear as you can by making precise lip movements. As we know vision is one of the most important senses that humans have and the Hebbian model shows how language can be affected by vision. Phonemes have specific lip movements associated with them and as a word is spoken phonemes are put together in parallel with the movements of the lips. Although different neurons are activated initially, the Hebbian model demonstrates how different localizations of auditory and visual senses can act on one and other and synergistically form strengthened synapse connection. By sensing both auditory and visual signals in parallel, it is possible that a child can learn better with the precise lip movements and inflection involved with infant directed talk. Positive reinforcement is also important to language acquisition. Positive reinforcement gives a child the sense that they did something well. Anyone knows that when you do something right you tend to be happy. This happiness is made inside the emotion center of your brain. It could very well be that this center can influence language acquisition by making neurons the neurons involved in language more plastic when you can in a good mood.

Although this is only theory, it can offer a compelling explanation to why parents can act in specific ways to help children learn languages. The importance to figuring out the reason why repetition and positive reinforcement work in the brain are important because once we understand these processes we can teach children how to speak in a more efficient manner and hopefully set them up for success in life.

References:

1) http://www.parents.com/baby/development/talking/9-ways-to-help-your-childs-language-development/

2) http://www.hanen.org/Helpful-Info/Parent-Tips.aspx

3) http://www.babble.com/toddler/speech-development-toddler-language-teaching/

4) http://linguistlist.org/ask-ling/lang-acq.cfm

5)http://www.lrdc.pitt.edu/schneider/brainexecemotion/Private/Readings/pulvermueller%201999%20Words%20in%20the%20brain%27s%20language.pdf

6) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synaptic_plasticity

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