How children acquire language

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Every child is unique. Children develop different skills and knowledge at their own pace and in different ways. As adults, it is important that we respect and value these different ways and rates of developing and learning.

A child who is not speaking may be actively listening and may need time to process what they are hearing before saying anything. It is important to value listening as well as speaking – non verbal responses from young children are perfectly acceptable. They show that the child has understood the message.

Having fun with the sounds of a language, experimenting with words in rhymes and songs, and saying things over and over again, are all things young children enjoy. When children do these things, they are learning new words, language structures and pronunciation, without even realizing it!

While in some cases translating may be necessary in order to put a child at ease, very young children may not understand even if you say it to them in their home language. Young children acquire language naturally, and this is also true for an additional language. Using mime and gesture, showing the children what you want them to do, and encouraging them to join in, are generally more effective ways of communicating meaning. The more English children hear, the more they will be able to produce in the future.

16-26 months

  • Copies familiar expressions, e.g. Oh dear! All gone!
  • Explores and experiments using senses and whole body.

22-36 months

  • Listens with interest to the noises adults make when they read stories.
  • Is interested in others’ play and is starting to join in.
  • Runs safely on whole foot.
  • Is aware that some actions can hurt or harm others.
  • Repeats words or phrases from familiar stories.
  • Recites some number names in sequence.
  • Experiments with blocks, colors and marks.

30-50 months

  • Responds to simple instructions, e.g. Put your toys away.
  • Can catch a large ball.
  • Notices what adults do, imitating what is observed and then doing it spontaneously when the adult is not there.
  • Can play in a group.
  • Holds books the correct way up and turns pages.

40-60+ months

  • Uses a pencil and holds it effectively.
  • Extends vocabulary by grouping, naming, and exploring the sounds of new words.
  • Writes own name and other things such as labels or captions.
  • Constructs with a purpose in mind, using a variety of resources.

Some advice for parents and educators.

  • A child who is not speaking may be actively listening and may need time to process what they are hearing before saying anything. It is important to value listening as well as speaking by giving the child lots of exposure to the language.
  • Non verbal responses from young children are perfectly acceptable. They show that the child has understood the message.
  • Don’t force a child to speak, they will when they are ready. Forcing a child to speak before they are ready could actually delay language development.
  • Be genuine in your interactions with young children.
  • Use mime and gesture as you would if you were talking to the child in their home language.
  • Value the home language. The skills that children develop while learning their home language are transferable to an additional language.

Want to know more?

If you want to know more about how children learn and how they acquire language, or you have completed the activities with time to spare, have a look at the links and videos below.

  • Read this article on how to help young children learn English as another language.
  • Watch What do babies think? by psychologist Alison Gopnik.
  • Watch The linguistic genius of babies by professor of speech and hearing sciences Dr Patricia Kuhl.
  • Read this article about how talking to babies and young children builds their brains.
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