Reading to and Interacting with Children Promotes Language Development

Published 04 Aug 2016

Language is one of the media of expression and tool for interacting with people. Without language, it would be extremely difficult to interact and communicate with other people. For a child, language is also important because it is intimately connected with the other areas of the child’s development such as moral development, emotional development, and intellectual development. For this reason, the development of the child’s speech and language are closely monitored by doctors and pediatricians. Language development is defined as “the gradual expansion in complexity and meaning of symbols and sounds as perceived and interpreted by the individual through a maturational and learning process”.

The different stages by which the child starts to learn about language such as dabbing, cooking, word imitation are some of the crucial stages in a child’s life. Language development starts between the 8th and 9th month from the child’s birth, or even earlier, until his first year where the child learns to utter sounds and make noises. Upon reaching the age of two years old, gradual language development continues and the child learns to use words and simple phrases. By the age of three, the child learns to utter complete sentences. By the time the child reaches the four the child is able to converse and talk clearly and audibly.

How the child learns about the complexity of the human language is a matter that has been the subject of many discussions among many experts. One of the theories about language development is that man learns language instinctively. This theory suggests that it is human nature to learn the language. According to Steven Pinker who is an experimental psychologist and a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, “language is a complex, specialized skill, which develops in the child spontaneously without conscious effort or formal instruction, is deployed without awareness of its underlying logic, is qualitatively the same in every individual, and is distinct from more general abilities to process information or behave intelligently”. Experts like Piaget thought that language development is an outgrowth of general cognitive development. Chomsky also thought that a child is born with specific linguistic knowledge. As a result, many parents believe that language is something which the child will eventually learn.

These theories, however, have been debunked by the latest research on language development. Recent researchers suggest that language is learned and that learning happens on a gradual phase which starts from the child learning to speak simple words until he learns to speak simple phrases. As learning learns more language development will continue until the individual learns to speak in sentences. Recent researchers likewise have established that children who were not able to learn language from an adult such as those who have been abandoned by their parents or relatives have impaired language development. They have delayed speech development and have difficulty expressing themselves. Thus, there is no proof that learning language is inherent to man.

Similarly, even if the parents or relatives are around to assist the child in developing his language skills, it does not follow that progress will be similar for all children. Language development will depend on the input that the child receives from his parents or relatives. It follows that generally if the parent is concerned about the language development of his child and takes appropriate steps so that the child will be taught language then it is expected that the child will have a more advanced development compared to the child whose parents do not give enough attention to the child’s language development. Thus, there are studies which suggested that children from affluent families have better and more advanced language development than those from economically disadvantaged families.

Another theory that has been accepted in the past is that television helps in the child’s language development. The prevailing opinion among many researchers in the past was that television aids the child and helps improve the child’s grammar and language ability. In a study conducted by the National Literacy Trust, it was however discovered that children’s language abilities upon entry to school have significantly declined over the last ten years. This is despite the development in television technology over the last 50 years. Televisions are now larger. They have higher-resolution screens. They are clearer and are much more affordable. These developments have allowed every household to have at least two televisions which have improved the quality of the viewing experience of the public. If the theory is true that television helps in the child’s language development then there should be a marked increase in the child’s language ability considering that every household has at least one or two televisions. This theory, however, is not supported by empirical evidence.

The reason for the same is that television viewing contributes in a very little way to the child’s language According to Dr. Robin Close if given the right conditions, “children between the ages of two and five may experience benefits from good-quality educational television. For this group of children, there is evidence that attention and comprehension, receptive vocabulary, some expressive language, letter-sound knowledge, and knowledge of narrative and storytelling all benefit from high-quality and age-appropriate educational programming.” He, however, added that the existing literature has failed to establish that children develop grammar, phonological awareness and knowledge of literacy from viewing television programming. Research has also failed to establish that child under the age of two benefits from television. On the other hand, there is ample evidence that children who are exposed to age-inappropriate television programs tend to have a lower vocabulary, poorer expressive language. They may also be exposed to sex and violence on television which may affect their normal development.

Recent researchers suggest that more than watching television the close relationship between the mother and the child helps in the language development of the child. The close special bond and the influence of the mother are considered to have the direct relationship as the child acquires the new language. This supports past studies that the mothers play an important role in the child’s development. Thus, she can facilitate the child’s early language development or restrict the same.

For example, it is suggested that a 15 month-old child may have knowledge of a greater number of early words because of the teaching activities of the mother which is manifested by demonstrating, facilitating, pointing and giving. On the other hand, it is also possible that the mother’s experiences may have a negative impact on the child’s development especially when they experience post-natal difficulties and emotional pain which can lead to the permanent or long-term effect on the child’s cognitive development.

For this reason, it has been generally viewed that reading to a child helps language development. When the child is ready to he begins to learn new words and terms. When the child is constantly read to he also learns to master these new words and slowly learns phrases and sentences. With the help of the mother young children can not only learn from being read to but they may also learn to love reading.

Glen Doman theorized that the reason why children who are read to learn language skills faster is because through reading the child learns about new words. Even if reading is done without any system, the child still learns new words and terms. However if reading to the child is done systematically and repeatedly such as when the words are read to the child repeatedly in a day for several days then the child is able to effectively remember and retain these words and terms. Using a systematic method of reading to the child he is able to learn and retain new words with great speed and efficiency. Learning continues to expand until the child learns to speak in phrases and sentences. Eventually, the child will also learn to utter from simple sentences to complex sentences. Thus, it has been suggested by researchers in the past that reading to children simple stories is one of the effective means improving the child’s language abilities.

However, the more recent studies have explained that it is not the act of reading to a child that facilitates language development. It is the interaction between the parent and the child that improves the child’s language skills. While reading is effective it is the communication between the parent and child that actually makes the difference. According to Dr. Jill Gilkerson, a language director at the LENA Foundation, “Talk is powerful, but what’s even more powerful is engaging a child in meaningful interactions — the ‘give and take’ that is so important to the social, emotional and cognitive development of infants and toddlers.”

In the same manner, when the child is deprived of actual interaction not only with his parents but even with the people around him, there is a possibility that the child’s language abilities will be significantly affected. Thus, it is common to see cases of speech problems in families where there are several children and where the parents no longer have enough time to interact with the children. Moreover, language development of children is severely affected in families where the parents believe that children are not allowed to argue with the parents or where the children are expected to be totally obedient to the parents.

In sum, children who are read to have better imagery or language development since the constant exposure to the words and phrases helps the child to retain these words. However, it is not the actual reading that helps the child but the interaction between the parent and the child by engaging the child in meaningful conversation that facilitates actual learning.

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