Sensitivity Period to Language

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The following is one in a series of essays written by Catherine McTamaney about how to be a Montessori parent.


The Sensitive Period to Language

The Sensitive Period to Language is present long before you hear your child’s first word, with some evidence that it begins as early as the sixth or seventh month of pregnancy.  Within hours of birth, newborns appear to identify known voices, remaining attentive when sounds familiar from the womb are played. By two months, infants may turn toward the human voice over other sounds. By four months, infants may stare intently at a speaker’s mouth and make early efforts to replicate the shapes they see. At six months, the babbling that so delights parents is a reflection of the absorption of language the infant has heard so far, and his initial efforts to replicate it. By ten months, the infant understands that language has meaning and by a year, most infants have spoken their first intentional word.  Over the first year, the infant develops an aptitude for his native language, forming sounds appropriate and connecting vocabulary without ever receiving a formal language lesson. Within two years, toddlers understand complex grammar rules, distinguishing in practice between nouns and adjectives and practicing simple phrases. At two years, most toddlers experience an explosion of language, injecting language with time, emotion,  abstract ideas and a rapidly increasing bank of vocabulary. A child’s expressed language may jump from five words to fifty, and his receptive language from about fifty words to over two hundred. By two and a half years old, most children understand over two hundred words and add ten or so new ones a day. By the time they turn three, children may understand as many as a thousand words and use hundreds of them regularly. All without ever being formally taught. 


Because children in sensitive periods are especially attentive to particular stimuli, it’s important to be mindful about the quality of that stimuli. Your child is listening to your words long before he can repeat them: choose those words carefully. Offering a language-rich environment is easy… all you need to do is talk a LOT! Whatever you’re doing with your child, talk to your child about it. “Oh! It’s time to change your diaper. First, let’s find a soft space to lie down. Here, I am unsnapping your pajamas. I am opening the tabs for your diaper now.”  or  “Let’s have a walk in the yard. We’re under a beautiful, tall tree. The light of the sun is shining through the branches.” Don’t worry about whether your child is “old enough” to understand particular vocabulary. He will absorb the quality and quantity of the vocabulary around him. Children can easily adopt seemingly complicated vocabulary if they regularly hear it in their real worlds. (Want proof? Just as a four year old about different kinds of dinosaurs!) 


While your child’s language is rapidly exploding, his environment needs to slow down to make time to make sense of it all. Take care with the pace of your words and to leave ample time for your child to construct his own. It may be helpful to remind yourself that your child is learning a foreign language in these first few years… remember how long it takes to find the right word in High School French? Or how so many Spanish students first learn to ask, “Come se dice...?” When you’re talking with your child, slow down the dialogue. Expect that it will take longer for them to make sense of what you’re asking and to find a response. For preverbal children, look for the indications in their bodies that they understand what you’re saying: where they look, how they position their faces, whether they turn toward or away from the speaker. Help your child to distinguish between all the sounds and stimuli he hears throughout the day but lowering your own voice and shortening the distance between you when you want his attention. Rather than calling across the room, move to your toddler, kneel to his height and speak your message softly. 


Beyond the spoken word that will naturally emerge as you’re engaged in activity with your child, offer ample and high quality books to read aloud. For infants, look for books with photographs of real objects rather than more abstract illustrations or cartoons or create your own opportunities with photo albums of places you’ve been together or family and friends you love. Model attentiveness by making time to sit, undistracted, with your child with books. Remember that, long before he’s developed the ability to pay attention to a book on his own, he’s watching you to see how it’s done. Don’t mistake your child’s lack of attentiveness for a lack of interest. Focus your own attention on the book, sit quietly, and draw your child in by pointing to the illustrations or drawing your finger along the words as you read them. As your child’s attention for books grows, choose children’s books with more complicated language and themes. Check out the Caldecott award winners for an easy list of great toddler books to start with. 


Finally, remember that the explosion of language your child enjoys in the first two years of his life will propel him long after the Sensitive Period to Language is over. By remaining attentive to language in this critical window, you can help establish a foundation for communication for years to come.