Focus on Early Childhood

New Ideas About Language Development

In the past 10 years, researchers have been busy studying the development of the human brain. Using new, sophisticated imaging techniques, such as positron-emission tomography, scientists can measure the amount of energy being used in different areas of the brain. Dr. Harry Chugani, a pediatric neurologist at Wayne State University School of Medicine, and others have been able to correlate focal areas of energy consumption and the development of certain skills and behaviors. The results of all this research have shown that although genetics lay a foundation for primitive brain development, the environment and early experiences have a great impact on how the young child’s brain will actually be "wired." At birth, the human infant’s brain has all the neural connections needed for automatic functions like breathing and heartbeat, but other neural connections have yet to be made. Positive, nurturing experiences and an environment stimulating to the senses seem to exert a strong influence by strengthening neural connections in the developing brain (Cowley, 1997).

In addition to the evidence of the importance of early experience, the new brain research has shown us that the brain has a remarkable ability to change and adapt in response to experience. The neuroplasticity of the brain is most remarkable in the first 10 years of life. During this time period there appear to be times during which the brain is especially efficient at learning particular skills. These critical times are referred to as critical windows of opportunity for learning (DiCresce, 1997).

The critical window of opportunity for speech and language development occurs in the first 3 years of life. During those years the neurological connections for language development are formed. This is the time when early experiences play such a vital role in language development, because once these connections are made they must be continually strengthened by listening to language spoken. Although babies begin to make noises for fun, their vocalizations soon become more specialized by imitating the sounds they hear spoken to them.

At birth, infants are equipped to develop speech in any language. However, by age 1 year they clearly learn to specialize in the sounds they hear most frequently. These frequently heard sounds create what has been termed "auditory maps." The sounds are received in the auditory cortex and a cluster of neurons develops to respond to those specific sounds. Sounds that are unfamiliar to the speech sounds or phonemes usually heard by the child will develop a weak, smaller or less dense cluster of neurons to respond to those sounds. The sounds will eventually become very difficult for the child to perceive because few if any neurons will be available to respond to the unfamiliar sounds (Begley, 1997).

Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington has done extensive research in the area of early speech and language development. Her research has led her to a three-stage model of speech development. According to Kuhl, in Stage I infants are born with innate abilities to separate the stream of speech sounds they hear. In other words, infants are born with the ability to perceive, process, and differentiate the phonemes they hear. In Stage II, which begins between 6 months and 1 year of age, children begin to develop and retain memories of speech representations they hear most frequently in their native language. Exposure to language and the frequent sounds they hear create large clusters of neurons in the auditory cortex to respond to those sounds, resulting in a "perceptual map". At Stage III, the child has a reduced ability to respond to unfamiliar or foreign phonemes due to the lack of neurons developed to perceive and respond to the unfamiliar sounds (Kuhl, 1996).

Early exposure to an environment rich in speech and language stimulation effects vocabulary development as well. Researchers at the University of Chicago have shown that the size of a young child’s vocabulary is significantly related to how much the mother or caregivers talk to the child. Their research showed that children of talkative mothers averaged 295 more words, at age 2, than children whose mothers were less talkative. Their studies also showed that live language was more effective at increasing vocabulary and syntax than television. Janellen Huttenlocher, a researcher at the University of Chicago, suspects that language has to be heard in the context of real events. Language concepts are easier to learn and understand when they are presented in a real and functional context (Begley, 1997).

The information generated by early brain development research has many exciting implications for early childhood educators. Because so many of the critical windows of opportunity for learning occur in the preschool years, we are presented with the challenging task of providing enriched, stimulating environments for children where they can develop all their senses to their fullest potentials. We are also entrusted with the task of assisting parents in understanding the importance of a child’s early years.

  • There are many exciting, fun web sites to obtain information on the new brain research and early development of speech and language skills.
  • The National Network For Childcare at
  • Zero to Three: National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families at

All of these web sites offer suggestions for stimulating cognitive and language development.

If you are interested in learning more about specific strategies to enhance language development, plan to attend the T-TAC ODU workshop, to be held on November 13, 1997. The library at T-TAC Old Dominion University also has a variety of resources on speech and language development available for checkout. Call for information on specific titles.


Begley, Sharon. How to build a baby’s brain. Newsweek, Special Edition. Spring/Summer, 1997.

Cowley, Geoffrey. The language explosion. Newsweek, Special Edition. Spring/Summer. 1997.

DiCresce, Amy (1997). Brain Surges. (On-Line). Available at:

Kuhl, Patricia. Early linguistic experience forms the brain’s "perceptual maps" for speech. Paper presented at the European Research Conference, Spain, April 1996.

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