Language and the Brain

The First Three Years

Our Brains
Fascinating new research methods let us understand our brains better than ever before. Researchers can actually show us when a child's brain is forming patterns that will affect the rest of his life, using concepts like "Windows of Opportunity". The right kinds of physical and mental stimulation are vital for all areas of development, but this page will focus on learning speech and language during those first three years of life.

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The first three years of life are the "Window of Opportunity" for language - the golden time when a child learns language just by hearing it, by listening to his family speak to him and to each other. He learns by hearing his family describe what they are doing -- talking about simple, everyday things like fixing dinner, or finding a coat, or walking through the park.

This is the time to start reading stories, introducing rhythm, rhyme, music and songs. Singing nursery rhymes, or reading Dr Seuss books might seem 'childish' to adults, but these activities actually introduce serious pre-reading skills of rhyming and wordplay. All in fun, a child learns to pay attention to sounds in words, getting ready to read.
Choose toys that stimulate imagination rather than those that limit play and interaction by having just one function -- think of a little toy truck that can be driven anywhere imaginable, carry any cargo .... and while you talk with your child about these adventures, language is absorbed and practiced, from simple words to sentences of increasing length and complexity. The child's brain is connecting experiences, working to understand meaning in his world. Language will never be easier to learn than during these first three years.
An ear infection often keeps your child from hearing, and thus, from learning language. Remember the "Window of Opportunity", and don't delay treatment. If your child is deaf or hard of hearing , consider systems of using sign language while talking to help your child develop these patterns of information. Babies, hearing or not, can learn to use 'baby signs' to express themselves before they can physically speak. Imagine an infant who can use his thumb and finger to baby-sign "milk" instead of crying in frustration!  Even better, a researcher has shown that babies who learned simple signs developed higher verbal skills.  The benefits continued, and after second grade, the children scored higher on IQ tests. (L Acredolo, UC-Davis)

We also understand that when we are stressed or in danger, our brains go into survival mode, and learning shuts down. Stress factors might be obvious for an adult, but we might not think about what stresses an infant or young child. For them, stress can as simple as loud noise or disturbing visual images. Think about a little one in the middle of a roaring crowd at a basketball game with the PA system blaring. Think of the violence shown on some TV or video programs - fighting, yelling, shooting. We normally react to stress and fear with adrenaline, but child who is repeatedly over-stressed may develop chemical differences in his brain. With his system in "high-gear" all the time instead of just in moments of danger, the child over-reacts to situations, and finds himself in more trouble than before. Other research has shown that babies who are nurtured and given appropriate mental stimulation grow up to be smarter than babies who are neglected or abused . It is much easier to learn when you are alert but relaxed.

SLP Front
Early Learning

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