“Linguistic Geniuses”October 20, 2022

It’s been about a week or so since I’ve been able to recognize a few words that Eli has been uttering and appearing to associate with their actual meaning. Take dog for instance: just this morning, a gentle Golden Retriever named Gracie approached Eli as he sat in his high chair (she was more likely looking for crumbs than looking for a toddler’s attention). As she approached, Eli made the initial sound /d/ followed by, what sounded like the word dog, perhaps though more like dug. Eli repeated the word/sound combination/babble (however you want to describe it) a few times before Gracie turned and walked away. The adults in the room all nodded in agreement that Eli had indeed said dog. Other distinguishable words that I believe are in Eli’s expressive vocabulary are go, ball, and dada. Dada has been a top word for a while now and seems connected to my partner, although Eli does babble this word when any other person walks by. Of course, like most babies or toddlers, Eli’s receptive language abilities (his ability to understand words) has been building for some time now. Garbage is a newer word that Eli seems to understand—I’ve been repeating garbage about 20 times as we take walks across the room to the trash bin or compost to throw something away.  

I find early language development fascinating. That infants are born ready to take up any language, and within about 8 months they’ve already decided which language(s) will be dominant. Up until about 8 months an infant can detect sounds in any language, a feat that adults cannot do. As infants hear their native language(s) more and more, they begin to develop the ability to recognize combinations of sounds in their language(s). There’s this critical period for learning a language from birth to age 7 and, according to scientist Patricia Kuhl during the first critical period in the development of language (when babies try to master the sounds in their language) infants are “linguistic geniuses”. In her research, Kuhl describes how babies take in statistics on how frequently they hear sounds in their native and non-native languages. They begin life as “citizens of the world”, but relatively quickly become “language-bound listeners” (for more on Kuhl’s research I highly recommend watching her Ted Talk).

So how does early language development relate to reading? From learning a language, which is something that we are wired to do, to reading symbols of a particular language, a relatively new invention and an activity that does not happen naturally, early language development has indeed been linked to later reading comprehension (for a good read check out this article by Shanahan and Lonigan: The Role of Oral Language in Literacy Development). Consider The Simple View of Reading, which shows how reading comprehension is a product of decoding or print-related skills and linguistic comprehension or language-related skills. If someone can easily decode print but has weaknesses in vocabulary or background knowledge, or syntax and grammar, they will have difficulty actually applying any meaning to the words they are reading.

A language-rich environment right from birth can provide more opportunities for “talk”, enriching vocabulary and leading to early literacy skills like phonological awareness and alphabet knowledge. Eli is certainly “talking” a lot these days to anyone who shows interest. It’ll be interesting to continue watching how his vocabulary grows and expands, and how our conversations change. I imagine the ongoing why question-focused conversations are right around the corner.

“Linguistic Geniuses”-October 20, 2022