Children always hear words spoken around them and to them, and these words determine their cognitive and emotional development
Without language, be it of any kind, one cannot imagine living in a society collectively with other people. Language is not just important for daily conversations but also for creation of bonds and relationships, especially with children. Conversing with children from the very beginning is considered to be of utmost importance for their proper development. Children learn language automatically without formal education or putting efforts; one only needs to interact with them. This, though, is a result of active, repetitive, and complex interaction.
Babies come into this world with a ready ability to learn language. According to Noam Chomsky, children are born with an inbuilt Language Acquisition Device (LAD) that helps them start acquiring language from a very early age. Chomsky’s view of LAD is consistent with specific structures in the brain that are involved in language learning and language processing. Apart from the theory of LAD, neural and behavioural research studies have also shown that exposure to language in the first year of life influences the brain’s neural circuitry even before infants speak their first words. This means that the interaction one has with children influences their neuron pathways, synapses and overall brain development.
Now, how actually do humans learn language?
Humans learn language from parents, relatives, friends and people around, especially during the initial years of life. Learning initiates especially from the first person with whom almost every person is first attached, i.e., the mother. Mothers and babies have a unique connection and experience of communication that starts from the very beginning. This unique connection plays its own important role in development of language. Children are hardwired, as far as language is concerned, which means once a cognitive function is effected or cognitive development occurs, it is permanent and cannot be altered in future. To understand the importance of being hardwired, an experiment called Still Face Experiment was conducted in Harvard Child Development Centre. The experiment was based on observation of a child (below one year) while the mother was having conversation with her. In the experiment, the mother was instructed to turn away her face from the child, after a friendly conversation, and then turn back to the child and have a still face. The baby first tries to engage the mother with smiles and cooing and then by pointing to some things. This is followed again by cooing and calling out to the mother by saying “ma, ma, ma” and then reaching out to her. Then all of a sudden, getting frustrated, the child starts screaming and makes one more final attempt to get the mother’s attention, before dissolving into helpless crying. This is how a child shows the need of attention and interaction. The way a caregiver reacts to a child’s demands determines the further development of the child and this development will be permanent.
Now why is it important for a mother to concentrate on her baby when the baby demands attention? It is important because the neurological development of the brain, and the actual physical development of the brain, depends on the words that parents include throughout the interaction. Each time a word is said, it shoots up to the neuron, stimulates the neuron, and when the same word is repeated, it stimulates that path again and gets stronger and branches out so that the capability of learning is developed. If those words are not repeated, the opposite occurs. Those neurons shrink and die and go away, which is called “pruning” scientifically and which decreases the ability to learn. The more interactions are made with babies, the more they are learning and the more their brain is getting activated. The less the conversations are made, the lesser they are learning and it results in shrinkage of brain capacity.
To help in the child’s brain development, the conversations always need to be interactive and two-sided. Putting babies in front of TV/screens won’t help in the learning process. It is not just the hearing; it is the interaction that is more important. Continuously putting words in front of her that do not include love and care or such feelings won’t work. This whole process is called language nutrition and nutrients are not fed raw but are instead prepared with care and as per the requirement of an individual. Language nutrition helps in development of the brain and development of the neurons is absolutely, biologically dependent on language, which leads directly to the ability to read, to learn, and to education. Food nutrition is important, but the language nutrition might be more important to the baby.
What happens if a child is not provided with language nutrition or is neglected (emotionally) or bad words are used?
A developing child does not only require proper nutrition but also protection, emotional support, and healthy conversation from the very beginning. If the child is not provided with so, it results in terrible consequences. Most of such children display disturbed attachment to their primary caregivers. This disturbed attachment also alters future relationships with peers by making them emotionally and physically isolated from others and reducing the likelihood of forming emotional connections. Neglected children also demonstrate lack of emotional regulation, difficulty in distinguishing emotions, and lack of understanding emotional expressions. They get easily frustrated and angry especially when facing any problem solving task. Apart from that, life-time mental health problems are common, for example personality disorders, disassociative disorders, psychosis and major depression.
Neuroimaging studies using magnetic resonance imaging have also shown that the brain structure of a neglected child is significantly altered. The overall cerebral volume of the brain of a neglected child is significantly diminished, resulting in decreased cognitive growth, development, and functioning. This proves that lack of interaction with children and less attention provided to them does result in permanent alteration in the structure of the brain, hence influencing other domains as well. Studies on academic achievements in such children have indicated that these children may experience a drop in their academic performance, are more likely to have attention deficits, poorer academic achievements and lack of creativity, apart from elevated stress levels that can lead to a release of higher levels of cortisol, causing damage to the hippocampus which affects a child’s learning and memory.
Children not given attention or not interacted with or not provided with complex linguistic input and personal interactions are also at risk of impaired language development. Usage of sufficient and proper words that show care and love is extremely necessary for optimal development of language skills. Interpersonal interaction is not only necessary for the acquisition of early language but inculcation of abilities for social development as well. Children who have not acquired language properly are also unable to communicate effectively in their social groups including friends, peers, and other groups. They also might lack the necessary skills to negotiate or resolve conflict and may have difficulties in understanding and relating to others.
What should be done?
In order to boost positive emotional and cognitive development in children, it is extremely important to interact with them, show love and affection. The interaction must be done from the very beginning, to catch their attention. Though they might not be able to respond, they are listening to each and every word. Children are blessed with the ability to hear voices even while in the mother’s womb. Indeed, life has turned into a very busy schedule in these fast-moving times. Parents are usually busy with their own issues which makes them unable to spend sufficient time with children. Some parents have also found refuge in phones, iPads, Tabs, and TVs. They find it helpful in engaging their children while they complete their own tasks, without knowing the consequences on their cognition, mental health, and physical health. The way food nutrition is to be looked after at each and every stage of life, language nutrition is also extremely important, especially during the crucial years of childhood. Children are very naive and in constant need of love and care. Children must be provided with much love through use of proper words that also reflect care and concerns and give them confidence that you are there for them all the time.
—The writer is a research scholar at Kashmir University doing research on child abuse. She wishes to thank her PhD supervisor, Assistant Professor Dr Shafia Nazir, for help with this article. [email protected]