Children in all cultures learn to speak in a similar progression and timetable. Also, in every culture, some children speak more words sooner, while others speak fewer words later. Without formal instruction, your child learns to talk in an organic manner. The brain has an innate mechanism that allows children to learn complex language skills early in life without direct instruction.
Noam Chomsky, PhD, an American linguist, says that babies have universal grammar, which is an understanding of the basic properties that apply to all human languages. Children have developmentally sensitive periods after which the opportunity to master language can be missed. Therefore, learning a foreign language is easiest during early childhood. Hideko Yoshida of Dream Window Kindergarten [where I worked in Japan] told me that the muscles for speaking a language develop by three years old, and after that age, it is difficult to change those muscles’ movements and to learn new sounds.
Your child’s first few years are a unique period for language and literacy learning. With your help, your baby first learns to babble, to say single words, to speak in phrases, and to speak in complex sentences. On average, at 18 months old, toddlers learn about 10 words per month, and by two years old, most children can say at least 50 to 100 words.
This rate accelerates, and by the time they are six years old, most children have a vocabulary of over 10,000 words. In this short time, your child learns to understand and create sound patterns; to recognize the meanings of many words; and to structure words grammatically through verb tenses, singular and plural noun constructions, and other distinctions. In addition, she learns to put these pieces together to communicate.
For her first two years, your child does not need language in order to solve problems, because her thoughts are associated with sensorimotor movements and object manipulation, rather than with using concepts or words. Between two and three years old, your child’s thinking and speech merge when she starts using words to think. At this time, thinking and talking occur simultaneously. As she speaks out loud to herself, her thoughts and understanding get clearer. She also speaks out loud to communicate to others.
Your baby’s first experience of expressing language is speaking. Then she learns to think, to draw, to write, and to read. She learns to talk to herself privately, and she learns that she can use it to help regulate her behavior. In the beginning, her private speech is audible yet self-directed. As she matures, she learns to talk to herself silently in an inner dialogue that may be a condensed version of what she would say out loud.
This inner conversation becomes an automatic way of thinking with words—for example, “I will put this puzzle piece in here.” When she begins to think with words, language becomes a part of her learning process, as well as a skill in itself.
Drawing is a prerequisite to writing because it helps your child confer meaning, label an object, and remember information. When she draws, she is learning the purpose of writing. At first her scribbles are kinesthetic, and as she attaches meaning to those scribbles, her drawing becomes a tool of communication and expression.
One of my favorite activities to do with young children is to make a book with several blank pieces of paper stapled together. The child says a phrase or a sentence, and I write what she says on a blank page. She then draws or scribbles a picture underneath the phrase or sentence. Finally, I read aloud the words that she originally spoke.
When your child tells you a story and you write it down, her words and ideas become more explicit. The process of writing down thoughts forces her to make her ideas more sequential and clear, because only one idea at a time can be written. When she speaks out loud, it is easy to forget her words, but when they are written, you can read them back to her again and again. She can take on the role as “reader,” even if she cannot actually read the letters or words.
Throughout her language development, social interaction and the emotional quality of communication influence your child’s ability to associate meaning and understanding. You can help her to feel comfortable and safe in expressing herself by responding to her through positive facial expressions, eye contact, and the tone of your voice.
Reciprocal conversations with your baby start when she interacts with smiles and coos at three to four months old. Later on, you help your child build her vocabulary and thought processes by engaging her in quality conversations with focused attention on listening, storytelling, singing songs, asking questions, and reading.
Learning through language starts early as a receptive process through hearing, listening, and remembering, and by understanding sounds and learning how to make them playfully. These activities use your child’s lower mental functions. As she deliberately imitates sounds and attaches meaning to them thoughtfully and intentionally, she uses her higher mental functions.