Humans speak naturally and spontaneously. Children learn the language spoken around
them. Babies start to say words about 12 months. In the second year, a child
develops vocabulary of about 250 words and makes simple statements.
Children use correct sentence structures by the age of three. Vocabulary
increases to about 2500 words at the age of six.
The motive for speech is to influence the behavior of and share information
with other humans. The desired effect of speaking to others is to modify their
behavior in ways that benefit you. Speech is used to review what has
happened, to plan what should happen next and to sequence events. Speech has
evolved from ancient animal skills of social interaction that have been
concentrated in the temporal and frontal lobes of primates. Spoken
language is the key to interaction with other humans.
Babies spontaneously make non-verbal sounds that with brain maturation and
practice gradually form some sounds into recognizable words. Speaking is a
spontaneous feature of the brain, and all normal children will speak if they
hear a language spoken; any language will do. Older infants imitate words they
hear spoken and if adults engage them in conversation, will expand their
vocabularies and start to make meaningful statements. Adults spontaneously
speak “baby talk” to infants using high pitched, somewhat melodic and non-verbal
sounds, exaggerated facial expressions and hand gestures. Babies like the
entertainment and babble and coo in response. This mimetic exchange marks the
beginning of human conversation. Human conversations always retain an
infrastructure of nonverbal sound communication.
The coherent, syntactical aspect of language is an overlay of more precise
communication. Words go with gestures Young children point with a pudgy index
finger and say the name their pointer indicates. Pointing and naming remains an
endearing characteristic for the rest of a human life. Babies follow the path of
language evolution. Their progress is from the description of the immediate and
concrete objects to making abstract statements about events. The first thing you
do when you are learning a language is point and name. You invent nouns. Most
words are arbitrary. A sound is connected to a thing and repeated.
are no rules for names, but there are rules about how names relate to each
other. Grammatical rules are both implicit in the brain and explicit in the
syntax or grammar of each language. Words are connected to meanings by
association. You still have to point and name to give new words meaning, but as
you get older and more sophisticated, you can translate directly from a word in
your known language to a word in the new language you are learning.
You need a small collection of typical sounds or phonemes to make a language.
The sounds are stored in the temporal lobe of the left hemisphere in most
right-handed people. We acquire sounds when we are young and then shut down the
sound library at about age ten. If you learn a new language after that, you
speak with an accent because you still use the sounds of your original language
and try to fit them into words of the new language. The new language has some of
its own unique sounds that you cannot produce so that your version of language
sounds funny and an alert native speaker can often figure out what your original
Speech is more natural and common than written language. Writing is a way of
recording speech and reading is a way of returning the written record to the
spoken word. Reading and writing are the newest, least natural functions of the
brain and appear to depend on more widely dispersed brain activity. A
reasonable argument is that auditory language is based on older brain systems
that are more specialized and localized. Written language appears to borrow
brain processing from many subsystems and is less specialized and localized.
Written language is superimposed on auditory language. This means that visual
symbols represent sounds and written words are learned by associating the
symbols with the sound of words, already known. Reading and writing should be
learned phonetically. As phonetically based reading is practiced, word
recognition gradually replaces phonetic decoding. Familiar words become gestalts
or visual patterns that are recognized, even when the spelling is incorrect.
Languages differ in their content and construction and some appear to be
easier to learn and use than others. Children who have difficulty learning to
read and write are described as “dyslexic.” English is a difficult language
because written words are not necessarily phonetic. There are thousands of odd
spellings that resist decoding by ‘sounding out the word.” In addition, there
are many worlds that sound the same but are spelt differently. American spelling
has simplified some words by removing characters that have no phonetic
significance; color replaces colour, for example.
There are about 40 phonemes in English, represented by thousands of letter
combinations. Easier languages to learn such as Italian have fewer sounds,
represented by fewer and more consistent letter combinations. Some written
languages were invented with rational and consistent rules, others evolved with
irregular and inconsistent grammars.
Parents need to know that learning to read and write is difficult and
requires skillful teaching and sustained practice over many years. Even the most
intelligent and gifted professional writers will report that good writing
remains difficult to achieve even with years of practice. At least half the
children who attend school will have conspicuous difficult learning the
rudiments of reading and writing. They can be helped by extra tutoring and
practice, but often school resources are limited and some parents lack the time,
motivation and skills to provide sustained learning experiences at home. The
other half of the student population will learn some writing skills but less
than 1% will become fluent readers or good writers.
In the USA, the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam grades
students language achievements across the country:only about one in four
students in Grades 4, 8 and 12 scored at the proficient level in writing in 1998
and only one in a hundred was graded "advanced." A study of California college
students found that most freshmen could not analyze arguments, synthesize
information or write papers that were reasonably free of language errors. A
National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges reported that
teaching writing skills is always time-consuming and teachers often do not have
the time or resources to do an adequate job. The commission reported that many
high school teachers have 120 to 200 students: too many to assign even a weekly
one-page paper per student.
In the US, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy in 2003 showed declines
in English literacy. In 1992, 40 percent of college graduates scored at a
proficient level, meaning that they were able to read lengthy, complex English
texts and draw complicated inferences. In 2003, only 31 percent of the graduates
demonstrated high-level skills; 53 percent who scored at an intermediate level
and 14 percent who scored at a basic level; they could only read and understand
short, commonplace prose texts.
Go To Language Center
Cited Ref: 1 Lewan, T. Writing in Schools Is Found Both Dismal and Neglected.
New York Times; April 26, 2003.2 US the National Assessment of Adult
Literacy, given in 2003 by the Department of Education.