How We Learn Language in The First Five Years of Life
Articles,  Blog

How We Learn Language in The First Five Years of Life


Of all mankind’s inventions, none was more
consequential than the birth of language. Before its creation each person’s
knowledge was limited to what he or she experienced directly. Afterward someone
who learned something could share it with anybody else. In this video, we’ll
look at four things known about language learning in general, and then listen to
the story of lucky Lucy and poor Pete to understand the importance of language in
everyday life. Our brains foundation is built through experiences early in life. Pat
Levitt from the center of the Developing Child at Harvard University
studied our brain development over the course of our life extensively. He showed
how the brain’s ability to change dramatically drops in the years of life,
while the amount of effort such change requires increases. Another research
showed that at age five 90% of a kid’s brain has been formed. If during these
years the child is blocked from receiving stimulating experiences, the
Language Center and other parts of the brain are likely to remain weak for life.
We learn language socially by observing and imitating others. Some 1,000 years
ago German emperor Friedrich II wanted to prove the opposite and showed that we
develop language naturally, all by ourselves.
He made his nannies raise some children. they were allowed to feed and clean them,
but not to interact socially, or ever speak a word. Not one child learned to
speak, but instead, they all died. For the same reason
toddlers can’t learn language via tape or technology. They need to be motivated
through a human relationship, then they pay attention and learn. Our language brain growth is strongest
in year one. If we study the brains development by the rate of new synapse
formation over the first 11 months of life, and then the next 15 years, we can
see how much the first five years matter. The growth in the part of the brain
responsible for language peaks between birth and age 3. During this critical
period children can learn a new word every 90 minutes and several languages
simultaneously. Our sensory pathways responsible for vision and hearing peak
before, which makes sense because we need to see and hear to imitate language. Four
month old infants for example, if raised bilingual by a British mom and the
Chinese dad can already differentiate between two languages just by observing
the lip movements of their caregivers. Higher cognitive function such as
logical reasoning peaks only once we have the words and know the symbols to
make sense of our world. Language makes our world: Rich language skills allow us
to really listen, to speak well, to enjoy reading and master writing, they can
create an entire world around us. As the German philosopher Wittgenstein said: “the
limit of my language is the limit of my world”. let’s take for example the word
“daycare center”. Some people think of it as a “preschool” the Irish call it “play
school” and the Germans invented the word “Kindergarten”. Only if we know all three
words can we understand what’s possible. Now let’s listen to the story about
lucky Lucy and poor Pete, two children raised in two very different ways.
Lucy is raised by her mother. The mother is an average native English speaker who
knows around 20,000 different words. Pete’s parents hire a nice nanny from a
foreign country. Instead of speaking in her native language the nanny is told to
talk to Peter only in English. While her everyday English seems okay she actually
knows only around 5,000 words. One fourth of what Anne’s mom knows. Year one
is when the language brain is developing the strongest. iÍf Lucy is awake half of
the time her mom speaks she will hear around 10,000 words per day and maybe
2500 being directed at her. Directed language is what matters. Whenever her
mom connects a word with an actual experience,
Lucy learns its meaning. Pete hears English only when the nanny deliberately
speaks to him, around 1,000 words a day. But not only is quantity lower but also
the quality. As the nanny is not fluent, there is a chance that many words come
across broken. At their first birthday both kids can say: “mama” and “papa”.
What we don’t see is that Lucy actually already knows many many words even
though she can’t say them. But Pete’s language universe is more limited.
When Lucy and her mom look at picture books, her mom points out what they see: a
little monkey is also a gorilla, an ape, a clever animal which uses tools, climbs
trees and lives with his mama and papa in the rainforests of Africa. When Pete
looks at a picture book his learning is limited by the language of the nanny. The same monkey is just cute and eats bananas. To compensate he’s given a
language app, but as Pete lacks the foundation he doesn’t understand a word.
To him, it’s just a bunch of new sounds strangely connected to colorful
characters. On their second birthday Lucy knows already well over 200 words, the
amount where children start to learn rules and apply grammar. Pete knows less.
Sometimes he gets frustrated because he can’t express himself. Lucy likes to go
with her mom into the park. Sometimes they watch the old men play chess. She
doesn’t understand the game but knows that there are pawns, rooks,
knights, a queen and a king, a bishop and a horse. One day she will learn the rules.
It will be easy because she sees each figure clearly.
Her understanding of their special skills is obvious. For a lack of language
Pete sees just a big checkered board and some wooden figures which all look quite
the same: pawns, knights, bishops. To understand the rules later will be hard
for Pete. All figures look so similar. How could they do different things? At their
third birthday both can say their own name and form sentences.
Lucy’s vocabulary now holds 1500 words. Pete’s got 500 to make sense of this
world. In year 4 they enter kindergarten. When Pete stands in front of the big
shelf he sees different wooden blocks, the ball, some old toy, a horse and the
yellow digger. When Lucy stands in front of the same shelf, she sees circles,
triangles, squares, a basketball, the red pinwheel, the beige rocking horse and the
carton box of the lego technic digger. At playtime, Lucy understands what others
are talking about and often takes the lead by suggesting a new idea. Pete often
doesn’t understand what she means. If the group discusses something for
longer, he zones out because he has trouble following the conversation. By
the end of the year Lucy knows 3,500 words, where Pete only knows 1000 words.
Lucy now forms more complicated sentences in perfect grammar. In the
evening her mom reads bedtime stories to her. Words she’s missing, she learns out
of context. As a native speaker, the mom can raise and lower her voice, making the
stories exciting. Fairy tales become alive in her head and Lucy learns to
imagine and to think creatively. Pete still speaks in more simple sentences
and his grammar is not perfect. When his nanny reads to him the voice is more
monotone. It’s more boring and paying attention is more difficult. Words he’s
missing, often remain missing. By the end of the year Lucy knows 6,000 and Pete
knows 2,000 words. To understand why the actual
difference in language abilities between the two is even larger than it seems,
let’s imagine that words are nothing but tools that help us encode the world, form
thoughts, structure ideas and then communicate with others. With 6,000 words
compared to 2,000 words Lucy’s toolbox is now three times the
size. Lucy has a huge head start as she is entering elementary school.
Einstein by the way as a child seldom spoke one interesting anecdote goes like
this: As he was a late talker and hardly spoke at the age of seven his parents
were worried and tried many things to get him to speak. At one point they were
afraid that he had learning disabilities. At last, at the dinner table one night, he
broke his silence to say: “the soup is too hot!”, greatly relieved his parents asked
why he had never said a word before? The young genius replied: “Because up until
now, everything was in order.”. What are your thoughts about language learning?
Can someone like Pete still catch up later in life or maybe find other good
ways to express himself? Maybe our point of view is too narrow
and Pete and Lucy actually balance each other out with the different skills they
have? Please share your thoughts in the comments below! Millions of students from all around the
globe have watched our sprouts videos for better learning, thousands of
teachers play them in their classrooms to start projects, volunteers on YouTube
have translated them to over 25 languages. Our mission is to promote
learning by doing in classrooms around the world. If you are a great explainer
and a passionate teacher and you want to help us develop outstanding content
contact us, to support our channel with a donation visit www.patreon.com/sprouts

51 Comments

  • Nata P

    What about bilingual children learning a foreign language in a foreign country? For example, I have a son. He is four now. He is sociable and talkative child. He has a wide range of vocabulary in his native language. So, I’m afraid that it would be very difficult for him to express himself and to communicate in the foreign country. He wouldn’t understand why other children don’t want to talk to him or don’t understand him. He couldn’t express himself clearly. I’m afraid that our moving will be very stressful for him and it will have negative impact on his personality. Should we cancel our decision in order not to hurt his psyche?Or are my fears unfounded and it would be not so stressful for him to learn another language through emigration in his young age?

  • Sezgin Özcan

    Then this childhood affects ones language learning then am i good at learning language or … i am coming from bilingual family but they have limited vocabulary how does this affects me

  • aymane boucetta

    in my opinion is never too late to learn new language . that's remember me a story for a video long ago wich an old man speak english very fast because had a crush in a old women who speak only english. He find a motivation. as always excellent quality and content video .

  • Bonka Hermit aka INTJudge

    Seems to validate the need for empathetic social interactionism for healthy human development. Thanks again

  • Lauren Burger

    Wish you would have added in the growth mindset to show that change is possible, and that Neuroplasticity can allow others to learn even when they are older

  • Gingereenio

    So, since I am a Pete due to the incompetence of my parent(s) [I can't fault my single mother, she had to support us. I love her with all my heart, but as a child I spent most of my time outside of school, alone] How do I un-fuck my programming?

    I've been reading plenty of literature that points to neuroplasticity being moldable well into adulthood, along with many other brain hacks and tricks, but I feel I can't catch up to people raised in a good home since I missed out on this exponential period. Even if I hack my brain to the best of it's abilities, is there really any chance I will be as intelligent as lucy, or is it just a waste of time? what a cruel hand fate has dealt to me in this regard.

    I do not look for pity though, I look for a fellow Pete to give me assistance. If you, reading this, have overcome this handicap, please share

  • Jordan Lane-Miller

    communication is one of the 8 Success Fundamentals for the 21st Century. The fact that it is not a more prevalent subject to study in our childhood years is beyond me. We can not speak that which we do not know. The more limited the vocabulary, the more tendency to poor behavior.

  • Ggdivhjkjl

    Why are you using the Union Flag to represent English instead of the English flag? There are other langagues spoken in the United Kingdom you know?

  • SiMe

    It's not that Pete is late. It's that he will simply have a harder time, which means that if Lucy does everything he does in terms of language learning she will move even further. His potential is being limited but it still exists. Just like you can learn to draw at age 40, it is recommended you do when you are a little kid because that will expedite the process significantly. I personally find myself learning words every single day in English since it is not my native language but it is still the language I use the most with other Native English speakers. To expand one's vocabulary, reading is a great tool, but new words should still be written down and learned separately from the book to add even more context in order to make the word stick.

    I'm currently learning Japanese and find it quite easy to learn new vocabulary when I have something to connect it to using stories and images.

  • Vena

    "Of all man kind's inventions" this channel is wonderful but you started it off wrong, GOD created language/tongues not man.

  • Ramon Sanchez

    So, what's going to happen now whit "New Generation" parents that have less time for their kids and when together often their attention is on the mobile phone?

  • Prithi Seshadri

    This video was interesting.In my perception I feel that , language is not only the tool to communicate.It is one of the way because it is globally accepted one. May be his interpersonal ability can be high. Children are unique.Rather shaping them to adjust with them we can be wider in thinking and go with their flow. I strongly believe, we can learn many things from them.once we admit at times that" we are ignorant"

  • wowiwowi

    Before I had my first class I had a beautiful childhood, but I never learned how to calculate and I was an immigrant. So I couldn't understand what the teacher was saying and my mom couldn't teach me mathematics. So I read a lot to learn the language but missed first math classes.

    I got my a levels because math was not part in it. I'm so thankful because I'm 20 and I use my fingers to calculate 😀 language is so important! I think that's the only reason why I'm so bad with math. I had a Traumata because numbers were hieroglyphics to me. My teacher knew I was an immigrant but never helped me.

  • Zachary White

    I love that you folks present an argument, and then explore other possibilities. It's a strong premise and I think it has merit, especially in a society that values language so much. I do think that Pete would certainly compensate in unexpected ways. For what he may lack in solidifying the depth of his language abilities, he may end up strengthening non verbal communication skills. Perhaps a stronger reliance on facial recognition and even possibly empathy to make up for it?

    Yeah it's all speculation, but I think above all else, children will naturally explore their world. Peters going to learn SOMETHING.

  • Kalin Popov

    A very interesting topic, thank you. I think that he can definitely catch up, but it will be hard and will only get harder as he gets older. By the time he realises that he has some catching up to do it might be too late. A good teacher would see that he needs help and may help him.

  • Saint Tymez

    This reminds me of my daughter and non-verbal autistic son, despite their environment and influences being much more similar. I definitely think Pete will likely find ways to compensate for the areas he lacks. I'm positive there are plenty of successful Petes'. Lucy just has a measurable advantage.

  • Donald Christensen

    There are parallels in this story to that of helicopter parenting. In the story, the problem is the language barrier of the nanny. In the bubble wrapping child parallel, the problem is the hindered experiences from the nanny state that believe that EVERYTHING is dangerous and is overprotective. This results in the child is hindered greatly on exploring. Schools also focus on test scores so that they can receive maximum funding. They reduce free play because it gets in the way of precious study time.

  • Burton Megasë

    You really need to put the name of the narrator in the description. I swear I've heard this guy somewhere.

  • sayed salah

    Yes this is true , I have been learning English for 5years via academic way but unfortunately I can't to reach to fluency

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *