In continuation of my article about bilingualism, I will tell you in this post about two important issues connected with it: what is language acquisition and how it works?
So what is language acquisition?
To explain this I need to use research studies.
In fact, this concept involves three overlapping but different concepts:
- Acquisition of one’s native language;
- Secondary awareness of the native language, usually associated with schooling;
- Learning a foreign language.
Non-native language learned by a child, can be of two kinds. If it is the language used in the community where a child is being developed, the second language is usually spoken about then. It is the language of national and language minority, public or official language (for those for whom it is not native), the language of interethnic communication. If there are no native speakers in the language environment, it is a foreign language then.
Mother tongue is not an “innate” language (there are many cases when children of one nationality are raised in families of another one and started speaking the language of the family from the very beginning). As well as this is not the parent’s language, especially if the family is mixed. Native language in general is the language in which the child said his first words. It should be distinguished from a dominant language -a language that is most closely associated with the development of the personality and mental processes in a child, especially thinking, in a specific period of age and general mental development. These languages are not the same. For instance a child in a family began to speak Armenian, and then he started speaking the dominant English language.
Language acquisition also involves language skills and abilities.
A language skill is a verbal action preformed under the following parameters:
- Full automaticity;
- Compliance with the language norm;
- Normal pace (speed) of performance;
- Stability, i.e. the verbal action remains the same under varying conditions.
If parents like these criteria (parameters), it means that their child does everything correctly and his language skills are formed.
Language ability is a child’s ability to speak easily and precisely using his vocabulary and knowledge.
Now let’s consider the second part of the title.
How language acquisition works
Language is stored and processed in two areas of the brain:
- Wernicke’s area – in the left temporal lobe;
- Broca’s area – in the left frontal lobe.
Though all languages are stored in these areas, the mother tongue and a language acquired later are separated in different ways. In real bilingualism, when a child masters two or more languages from infancy or in early childhood, both languages are stored in the same space of Broca’s area. However, if a second language is mastered later, even if at a highly professional level, it is stored and processed in a different space within Broca’s area.
Mother tongue firmly inhabits the brain. Even people, who can fluently speak foreign languages, will automatically start speaking their mother tongue in times of stress. Critical concepts like counting remain irrevocably linked to one’s mother tongue throughout life.
Both these phenomena can be due to the fact that mother tongue is naturally acquired in a unique way. It is soaked up and coded in the brain when it is busy laying foundation for learning.
How do children master their language?
Initially, a baby passively absorbs his first sounds form the parents and other people. Actually, the baby’s brain is actively analyzing the language and preparing for future language development at this age period. Finally, associations are made between a sound and the meaning, it can be as a concrete noun (a cat), so a more complex abstract concept (cold). In this natural environment of language acquisition, a baby does not need to study grammar, be aware of linguistic structures, improve his pronunciation, learn to read and write, and acquire other skills associated with formal language training. A baby absorbs audio data like a sponge.
Language acquisition is not just listening, it is far more complex. Babies need exaggerated pronunciation, pitch, rhythm, and facial expressions. When speaking directly to a baby, adults unconsciously slip into the kind of baby talk known as Parentese. They speak slowly, with exaggerated emotions and in a sing-song manner. All these attract baby’s attention, and he is stimulated to respond. The baby rewards the adult by gurgling, smiling, moving his arms and legs, and showing other signs of a happy and fascinated baby.
Visual stimulation helps baby create these first associations. Babies, who don’t get enough visual stimulation, can suffer from developmental disorders.
Is your baby exposed to more than one language in the family? How does he cope with them? Share your story and experience with other parents!