As a child psychologist for over 30 years, I have evaluated distressed youth in numerous settings. These have included hospitals, schools, special education programs, detention centers, group homes and outpatient clinics, for a host of reasons. A consistent observation from such assessments has been the essential nature of language ability for lifelong adjustment and success. Children who listen well, have broad vocabularies and can reason with language cope better and progress faster and farther. Conversely, youth with weaker verbal skills are over-represented among those with academic, behavior, social and emotional struggles.
This is not surprising considering the verbal nature of education and, increasingly, most types of work. Even jobs such as engineering, law enforcement, sales, customer service and computer programming depend on verbal reasoning and command of language. There are researchers who believe that thinking, particularly more abstract reasoning and judgment, is synonymous with internal speech. That is, when we solve mental problems, we rely upon quiet self-talk (known as sub-vocal speech) to guide our reasoning. As an example, consider how “thought” sometimes becomes overt speech when we are perplexed or must remember critical information.
Facility with language, effective verbal reasoning and self-control are intertwined. Children who are impulsive, aggressive, are failing in school and repeat mistakes are often those with weaker language skills. They struggle to use internal speech to regulate their actions or to make changes based on experience of prior outcomes. Fortunately, we can enhance how well a child learns to command language.
Most kids are equally prepared to learn language and to use internal speech as a tool. Differences among children are usually due to early levels of environmental stimulation and occasionally to sensory deficits, for example, with hearing occlusion due to ear infections. The critical period for learning language appears to be between 6 and 18 months. At this time, infants or toddlers are most attuned to the sonic world and are impacted by stimulation or deprivation. I have said to medical students at Mercer University upon beginning a new course in psychiatry, “I don’t know anything about you except that someone provided you rich language experiences during your first years of life.”
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If I have convinced you (by the written word, by the way) that language skills are important for success, what can be done to nurture these capacities, particularly for young children who are “primed” to learn? First, the rudiments of language are taught through imitation and repeating the sounds a baby makes. When she says “baba” we say the same back (the positive effect is enhanced by smiling, moving close and having eye contact). This teaches that sounds are meaningful and can be shared. The child learns that adults respond to their noises and that attention comes from making speech sounds. By speaking often and using affectionate “baby talk,” children learn the sounds and cadence of language that they later imitate. Speech begins, thereby, to replace crying or emotional displays as a way to get attention. Tantrums also subside with advancing speech sophistication. Music and singing also seem to help children learn language.
Additionally, verbal interactions strengthen the emotional ties between parents and children. Providing a good verbal model for a child is important (conversely, harsh speech, yelling and expressed anger has the opposite effect; nagging and criticizing don’t work). That is, using a range of words and calmly describing what you and they are doing, referred to as “labeling,” builds the vocabulary and the child’s tendency to relate and interact with words.
Finally, one of the most important language-building activities for children is reading to them. Reading to a child communicates the importance and joy of language, brings them into close physical proximity with a loving adult and introduces the foundations of later independent reading (e.g., move from left to right, going down the page, learning that words are associated with pictures, building grammar and expanding vocabulary).
If I could give a single piece of advice to a new parent in order to help a child in later life, it would be to model, teach and fortify good language skills. A firm grasp of language facilitates success in society, can be enjoyable, promotes clear thinking and enhances the emotional connection between adults and children.
Roger Alan Williams is director of the Psychology Assessment Center and an associate professor at Mercer University’s medical school.