Language Skills: How Do We Get Them?

Language skills have been the key to our success as a species. Find out how a new study sheds light on how our brain structure combines with our environment in early childhood to enable us to communicate.

Our family cottage was a gathering place for the extended family, especially when it was new. One day my Uncle Elgin went for a walk with my niece Suzanne, who was about three years old at the time. Apparently, they had a wide-ranging conversation.

When my uncle and niece returned to the cottage, he told us how impressed he was with Suzanne’s communication skills. “She can tell me anything she wants to,” he exclaimed. All of my nieces displayed well-developed language skills from an early age.

They still benefit from those language skills in their adult careers. Maybe it runs in the family. Then again, their mother made a point of coaching them to speak correctly and actively discouraged baby talk from the very beginning. Maybe that set them up for success.

Raises the Age-Old Question of Nature Versus Nurture

This raises the age-old question of nature versus nurture. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all pondered whether we’re born with language skills or they’re something we pick up from parents and teachers.

In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant considered whether we start out life with a priori knowledge or gain all our understanding from the world around us. David Hume thought we were all born blank and that language skills, and all our other impressions and ideas, arose from our perceptions.

Modern linguist Noam Chomsky argues that we’re born with a language acquisition device (LAD). He thinks the LAD is part of the brain and provides kids with communication skills without much input from the world around them.

Born with a Language Acquisition Device

Other linguists think children learn language skills empirically from all the information they take in from their surroundings. Finally, a third group believes that children learn to communicate through interaction with attentive caregivers like Suzanne’s mother.

Now, researchers from the University of Boston have published a study in the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience. It links children’s language skills with the composition of their brain matter, suggesting that communication is something we’re born with.

Neuroscientist and speech pathologist Jenny Zuk led a team that followed forty children from infancy to kindergarten. They found that the brain’s organizational pathways seem to set the foundation for children’s language learning within the first twelve months of a child’s development.

Brain Tissue Scientists Call White Matter

Most of us have heard of gray matter in the brain, but we also have tissue that scientists call white matter. Professor Zuk explains, “A helpful metaphor often used is: white matter pathways are the ‘highways,’ and gray matter areas are the ‘destinations.”

Neurologists have long known that the more someone does a task, the more these white matter highways become wide open roads. This is because white matter develops fastest during the first two years of a child’s life.

The team sought answers to several questions. How significant a role does the brain structure we’re born with play in our development? Do our brain and language skills develop together based on our environment? And how much does brain structure influence a child’s success in developing language skills?

MRI Images of Infants’ Brains

Professor Zuk worked with senior study author Nadine Gaab. Ms. Gaab is a hospital researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital. They met with families to take MRI images of their infants’ brains. This was the first study of its kind on white matter development.

The research was also the first time neurologists used MRI to examine how brain structure and language develop after birth in typical children from infancy to when they started school.

Getting this done with 4-to-18-month-old-babies was quite a challenge. To get clear MRI images of the infants’ brain activity and structure, they needed to lull the babies to sleep and keep them from waking up.

“Fun Process that Calls for Patience and Perseverance”

Professor Zuk seems to have enjoyed the challenge. “It was such a fun process and also one that calls for a lot of patience and perseverance.”

“There are very few researchers in the world using this approach,” Professor Zuk explains, “because the MRI itself involves a rather noisy background and having infants in a naturally deep sleep is very helpful in accomplishing this pretty crazy feat.”

The team was especially interested in the density of a “highway” called the arcuate fasciculus. That’s the connection between the two parts of the brain that manage language skills.

Assessed Each Child’s Language Skills at Age Five

The families and the researchers reunited to assess each child’s language skills when they reached age five. They covered vocabulary, sound recognition and how well children understood blending sounds together to make words.

The team’s results show that children born with more organized white matter had better language skills at age five. This suggests a strong link between the brain structure we’re born with and our communication skills.

Even so, this doesn’t settle the nature versus nurture debate. “Perhaps the individual differences in white matter we observed in infancy might be shaped by some combination of a child’s genetics and their environment,” Zuk suggests. 

Humans Aren’t the Fastest or the Strongest

We humans aren’t the fastest or the strongest animals on the planet. Although we’re often foolish, we seem to be the smartest, but even that’s not how our species succeeded.

Our main advantage over other species is culture–our ability to share and transfer knowledge with our neighbours and with our children. That advantage, the ability to tell meaningful stories, demands powerful language skills.

Since communication is indispensable, anything a culture can do to support language development in early childhood is invaluable. Professor Zuk explains that, during the first year of life, “there’s a real opportunity for more environmental exposure and to set children up for success in the long term.”

“Real Opportunity to Set Children Up for Success”

Even after that first year, “ongoing experience and exposure then builds upon this foundation to support a child’s ultimate outcomes,” Professor Zuk explained.

The team’s next step is to help parents and caretakers identify early risk factors impacting young children’s language skills development. Then, based on these risks, the researchers hope to find strategies that strengthen babies’ language skills as part of early childhood development.

 Professor Zuk concluded by saying, “It is intriguing to think about what specific factors might set children up with more effective white matter organization early on.”

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn More
When It Comes to Communication Skills—Maybe We’re Born with It?
White matter in infancy is prospectively associated with language outcomes in kindergarten
Benefits of Nature Confirmed by Science
Neuromyths: No, You Don’t Have a Learning Style
Patience: Where It Comes From and Why


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