Friday, July 27, 2012

How a Baby Learns to Talk: Part I

This is the first part of a Science Friday series that will focus on how a baby learns to talk.
   At 16 months, Q-ball is starting to babble and even talk a lot.  She's been saying "mama", "dada", "hot",  and a few other attempts at words for a few months now.  Recently, "uh-oh" was added and, she has loved practicing all of her animal noises.  And, in sign language, she is starting to put together two-word phrases ("diaper change," "more milk").  So, what, exactly is happening?  How does a baby learn to talk? 
   It turns out, it's a totally natural, instinctive process for humans.  Our brains are literally hard-wired with neurons (check out this old post for a brief overview of neurons) to understand and create language, just like any other daily task like seeing and hearing.  Scientists have concluded this for three reasons:
  1. All children around the world have the same schedule for learning a language, whether it's English, Mandarin, or even sign language.  First, they learn single words, then two-word phrases, and then sentences.  
  2. The brain has special neurons and centers completely devoted to language.  This was found when doctors started to document injuries that produced interesting changes in language (read about some here.)
  3. Noam Chomsky has documented that all languages have a "Universal Grammar," that is, all languages have the same basic structure of noun, verbs, adjectives, and other parts of speech.  He concluded, then, that the human brain is structured to learn and create basic grammar rules.
Photo Credit:
    However, even though learning a language is in a human's genes, it is life experiences that ensures it happens. There is a critical period for language learning. This is because children have far greater synaptic activity than adults (again check out this post if you want more details...) In some documented cases, children who are not exposed to language (sadly, many of these cases are due to abuse or neglect, but there is also a famous case in which the family did not realize their child was deaf until she was 32 years old) by about 6 or 7 years old, their lose their ability to master a language.  After this time, children may be able to learn a language, but they will not be as proficient as a native speaker.  And, in some cases, they may fail to ever learn to speak or sign at all. 
   Newborns possess an amazing ability to distinguish difference sounds.  Scientists have demonstrated that newborns can tell the difference between /pa/ and /ba/ and other similar sounds.  They can even tell the difference between foreign languages better than adults!  These amazing powers of newborns relate back to the theory that all humans will create language as our brains are literally hard-wired to do so.  Just talking to a newborn is the best way to activate his language learning capabilities.  
   Quickly, however, the brain starts to favor the language with which it is most exposed.  As time goes on, children lose the ability to distinguish the fine differences between phonemes and, thus, languages. 
   Beyond listening to other speak, babies also learn language by practicing it themselves.  They babble!  We may think that talking is pretty easy, but it requires lots of motor coordination. Babbling is a baby's way of exercising and experimenting with his tongue, lips, palate, and larynx. During this time, babies are actually undergoing physical changes as well. At birth, a human's vocal tract looks more like an ape's than a humans.  By six months, however, it has started to take a more human shape.  A baby's babbles reflect the language and even accent that he hears.  In one experiment, when a 12-month old was exposed to a female speaker for 15 minutes, he actually started to change his pronunciation to match hers! 
  So, what happens after babbling?  Actual words!  Come back soon to read more about the science of a baby's first words.

Eliot, L. (1999). What's Going on in There? Bantam Books: NY, NY.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Watch Her Grow...

This Week's Focus: Language and Critical Thinking
 I am removing the "Interactions with Space" section for the foreseeable future as Q-ball is now quite mobile.  Her growth areas now appear to be more cognitive than physical, so I will begin to make note of these changes this week.

Interactions with Materials
Hopefully she is always this adventurous of an eater! I think she really wanted to have the fish's eye!

  • The walking wagon is still a favorite.  Now she is more focused on opening the top (it lifts on a hinge) and filling it with what I see as random, found objects.  But, here is one of the areas that I see her critical thinking or planning demonstrated. These objects certainly aren't random for her- she'll be on one side of the room with the wagon, and then her face will light up as she runs to retrieve whatever object she's thought of. 
  • The Learning Tower is now one of her favorite reading spots.  She has figured out how to climb up and down the tower on her own, so she often will climb up, rest a book on the counter, and read. 

    Interactions with Others
    • Q-ball hasn't been overly friendly with people this week.  Strangers (or people she sees only on occasion...) have been greeted with tears and screams.  But, she eventually kinda warms up to them- as long as they don't get very close.
    • In settings with other babies and toddlers, she venturing out a little more, but certainly can strong arm any kid trying to "share" the toy she's using.
    Critical Thinking
    • I have been mentioning Q-ball's increasing ability to sign.  Now, she is starting to put together two-word phrases with signs (diaper change, more milk/banana/water.)  
    • When we are out and about, I can see that she is making connections in her knowledge and working with signs to try to ask me to confirm or deny her ideas. We spent a long time at the fish counter this week while she worked to sign fish and figure out why the fish on ice looked a little different than those in her books.  (And we watched the lobsters, of course!)
    • Another interesting connection, while eating ground beef (she's really been eating her meat!) she made the sign for "poop."  As someone who doesn't eat beef, I agree with the visual similarities, but we probably need to fix this before we start random snacking...
    Interactions with Life 
    • Sleep, as usual, has been tough.  The past few weeks, she'll awake for 2-3 hours in the middle of the night. I think she's just thinking too much to sleep, but that doesn't make it easier!  The past few nights haven't had any extended wakings, but she has wanted Mama to come and check on her every hour or two.

    This post is linked up with Melissa from Vibrant Wanderings. Check out the links to see what other fantastic kiddos are up to!
    To see the rational and purpose for the Watch Her Grow series, please check out this post!

    Wednesday, July 25, 2012

    Less-Words Wednesday

    Q-ball has loved playing with shoes for awhile.  This week, however, she has been very intent on wearing and walking in Mama's or Daddy's shoes.  It's cute and fun at first, as seen here.  However, this game quickly spirals into extreme frustration with tears, throwing of shoes, and screams as she realizes that the shoes do not stay on her feet.  Ah, toddlerhood. 

    Wednesday, July 18, 2012

    Less-Words Wednesday

    Yesterday, Q-ball made her first edible creation (although she didn't eat the final product- just picked out the grapes..)  Grape-apple-carrot-bananas-Cheerios salad! It required several bowls and utensils to get it just right, of course.  Maybe we should have tried some!  

    Where has this Learning Tower been all my life?!?!?

    Monday, July 16, 2012

    Reading to a Young Toddler, the Montessori Way

      We love books! Daddy and I have always had a full selection of books in the house and are always in need of a new bookcase.  So, naturally, we wanted to share books with Q-ball. In fact, the theme of Q-ball's baby shower was books!  While we read to Q-ball from her birth, she did not begin to show her true interest in reading until about 11 months.  Since that time, she reads far more than Mama and Daddy!
       Within Q-ball's current space are two shelves full of books.  I had debated putting out so many, but she always seems interested and is able to "clean up" with some reminders, so I leave the bulk of our board books available.  We do, however, rotate books from the library in and out to introduce new topics and to prevent constant repetitiveness (for Mama and Q-ball!).
       However, I recently realized that I had not researched Dr. Montessori's thoughts on books for infants and toddlers. The goal of reading to this age group, according to Montessori experts, is to introduce new vocabulary words, model the use of books, and to foster a connection between caregiver and child through reading.
       Here are some of the tips I found for creating your own Montessori-inspired library:
    Reading with her uncle
    •  Board books are best for this young age.  But, high-quality children's book with regular pages and dust covers should also be introduced to the child with an adult's supervision.
    • Books should be easily accessible to children in a basket or low shelf.  Special books, however, should be stored away from the child and only brought out when they are read.
    • Proper care and respect of books should be modeled to children- how to turn the pages, how to hold the book, and how to return the book to its location.
    • As toddlers are actively looking to learn new words, books can be used to extend their vocabulary. These books should have simple, large images matching the words with the pictures.
    • As with toys, children should have access to favorite books, but there should also be a rotation of new books to keep children engaged. Only a few books should be available to a child at any given time. (To see the science behind this, check out this Science Friday.)
    • When reading to a child, make sure that you are interested! A child's love of books will come when it is modeled by his role models. Likewise, ensure your child sees you reading for your own pleasure.
    • Topics and pictures in books should represent a variety of cultures and topics.
    • Books should stay focused on reality and shy away from topics of animals that talk and sing. Young toddlers are still working to figure out our real, everyday world, and fantasy stories can confuse them.  I must say these can be harder to find in board books! But, I like this quote from Micheal Olaf's site about the importance of this.
     We should check that they [books] present reality, since at this age children are trying to make sense of the environment and the life around them. There is nothing more extraordinary and interesting than our own daily life. Fantasy can come later—after reality has been experienced and absorbed.—Dr. Silvana Montanaro
       Based upon this research, I'm going to make a few changes. For one thing, I'm packing away many of the books we have out.  I have out way too many right now!  And, I want to start reading more of the "special" books with Q-ball to ensure she knows how to care for these books as well.

    Does your child love reading?  What does reading look like at your house? 

    Olaf, M. (2010). The joyful child. Montessori from birth to three. Retrieved from
    Lillard, P.P. & Jessen, L.L. (2003). Montessori from the start: The child at home, from birth to age three. Random House: NY.

    Friday, July 13, 2012

    Attention Span of a Toddler

       I thought I'd give long-time (or short-time!) followers a break today from my long-winded Science Friday posts and do something more simple.  When Q-ball turned 1, I found a copy of Gesell Institute of Human Development’s series on child development, by Louise Bates Ames.  I've talked about Gesell in some posts before- I've always found his research interesting, hence the read.
       One of my favorite parts of the books was the following image. In it, Gesell and his fellow researchers recorded the movements of children of various ages around a nursery over a 7-minute period.  Q-ball is only 16-months, but I've just assumed that 12-18months pretty much all looks that same.  This image pops into my mind at about 4:45pm almost every day as I haven't gotten any of the tasks done for the day but am totally exhausted.

    Photo Credit:
    Does this remind you of your child?

    Thursday, July 12, 2012

    Watch Her Grow

    This Week's Focus: Language

    Interactions with Materials

    • Q-ball has really enjoyed just standing around in her Learning Tower. It has really helped me get things done in the kitchen as we used to struggle through dinner cooking with her at my feet, very upset with the situation.  She doesn't really get involved with me cooking yet.  She just likes to put a book on the counter and read it or play with my keys (the key hook is next to the Learning Tower.) 
    • She is still practicing taking lids on and off of jars and containers.  She gets frustrated with the task when she cannot master it, so we still need a little practice. At times, I have had to take away some of the containers as her frustrations indicate they are clearly above her current abilities.
    Interactions with Others
    Daddy made homemade ice cream for the 4th of July!
    • Her uncle visited this week, and they had a wonderful time together! Sadly, he had to leave this morning, and she was obviously aware of this. She was quite upset and resistant to get close to him.  Transitions are getting tough!
    • As with the above example, Q-ball is increasingly upset with Daddy when he gets home from work. Daddy is already gone for work when Q-ball wakes up, so we think she is upset with him for being gone all day.  We were lucky to have a few weeks recently where Q-ball spent more time with Daddy, and I think this change is making her sad.
      Interactions with Space
      • She is dancing all of the time!  I am getting more music CDs from the library, and she spends quite a bit of time standing in front of the CD player, making the sign for music, and then dancing and clapping.  It's certainly helped with bedtime!
      Interactions with Life 
      • She's continuing her interest in learning signs.  We've gotten several books from the library, and she loves reading them and practicing the new signs with us.

      This post is linked up with Melissa from Vibrant Wanderings. Check out the links to see what other fantastic kiddos are up to!
      To see the rational and purpose for the Watch Her Grow series, please check out this post!

      Thursday, July 5, 2012

      Watch Her Grow

      This Week's Focus: Language

      Interactions with Materials

      • This week Q-ball finally met her Learning Tower! (I must brag- I found it at a thrift shop for $11.95 because there were some stickers on it and stray pens markers on the easel. For those who don't know, MSRP is $150...)  She seems to really enjoy being on level with Mama and watching her cook (which we had to do a lot of this week), but her favorite thing so far is to pick items off the counter and drop them on the floor.  Learning about gravity, I suppose. 
      • She's taken an interest in doorbells.  She likes to say "ding-dong" whenever we enter the house.  
      • She has really enjoyed talking on the phone when Mama is on the phone, using an old cell phone.  She loves saying, "bye-bye.."
      Interactions with Others
      • This morning at a event we attend, she let a stranger hold her hand and even pick her up! I was so surprised! 
      • She has also become quite the performer.  See yesterday's post. Even if she won't let a stranger near her, she'll be happy to smile and dance for them.  So, it's  a
      Interactions with Space
        • Now that Q-ball is opening doors, her favorite door to open is the pantry.  This can be a bit of a mess, but it gives us lots of practice to clean up after ourselves and allows Mama to practice her relaxation breathing exercises.  Something that can't be "cleaned up"- the fact that potatoes, apples, and oranges look a lot like balls and get thrown and bruised.
        Interactions with Life 
          • She seems to be in the phase where she learns signs pretty instantaneously.  Now, Daddy and I just have to learn more to keep up!
          This post is linked up with Melissa from Vibrant Wanderings. Check out the links to see what other fantastic kiddos are up to!
          To see the rational and purpose for the Watch Her Grow series, please check out this post!

          Wednesday, July 4, 2012

          Less-Words Wednesday: Happy 4th of July!

          Q-ball loves music!  So, she was very happy to celebrate America's birthday with a band!  She was so excited that she finally broke out of her chair and ran on stage. She pretty much stole the show as she jumped on stage and danced to all of the songs.  Even the conductor had to move out of her way!  She especially loved The Battle Hymn of the Republic, just like Daddy.

          The pictures are a little blurry, but she was moving too quickly for anything better.  She was finally so dizzy and exhausted (it was 2 hours past nap...) that she literally fell off the stage into Mama's arms.
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