Learning language

  It's yakkin' time
Only after an infant learns the basics of identifying words and learning clauses do words start to acquire meanings -- definitions. According to Lila Gleitman, a professor of psychology at the talkin' the talkUniversity of Pennsylvania, until about 15 to 18 months, children learn about one word every three days. Then, rather suddenly, they begin learning 10 words a day.

Gleitman says the biggest clue to the accelerated learning is the fact that it occurs when the child starts making sentences. "When the child begins talking at two words at a time, this is the first evidence that they understand something about grammar and language," she says. By 18 to 24 months, she adds, they "not only hear words, but use the grammar of English language to sort out what it means."

In interpreting words, she says what happens after a word helps reveal its meaning.

bullet A word about thoughts or emotions usually has several words at the right: "I hope you will meet me for dinner." How often do you hear "I hope the truck"?

bullet A noun phrase is often followed by one word: "I am taking the number 7 bus home."

bullet An action verb related to the muscles often ends the sentence: "I'm going swimming." (You wouldn't normally say, "I'm going thinking.")

  This wholesale learning of words continues until about age 30, Gleitman adds, so the average American has a vocabulary of 80,000 to 100,000 English words.

Hands off for success
Although English is extremely complicated -- at least for computers -- learning languages comes as naturally to infants "as barking to a dog," Gleitman says.

This means most kids get enough stimulation to learn speech without any effort by the parents. Forget about advanced speaking classes for your two-year-old: "For the first three years, you can't go wrong, unless you lock them in a dark closet," Gleitman maintains, adding that even the children of strong silent types learn to talk just fine.

In contrast, she says written language is "another kind of knowledge," where reading to children and teaching them the alphabet can have an "enormous effect." Children who don't get much written language at home greatly benefit from programs like Head Start.

What happens if kids can't process sounds rapidly enough?

The Why Files
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