You may have heard that it’s incredibly easy for children to learn languages. But do you know how they actually do it? How does a child go from cries and coos to expressing their desires and build all of that up to engage in profound dialogue later in life?
According to psychological scientists, how a child picks up language encompasses holisticism and is dependent on these three main factors:
The amount of language they are exposed to
Their time spent in back and forth language interactions
Physical connections with their environment
The last one probably came as a surprise to you, but yes, scientific research is only now catching up to reveal what we as human beings have inherently known for millenia; using our physical body plays an indispensable role in the development of our cerebral and linguistic capacities.
As a mother and multilingual educator myself, I have seen the impact of this first hand, through the rapid development of my son’s linguistic and motor skills, that are expanding faster than we can keep up with!
At just 6 weeks of age, he already began mimicking certain sounds and engaging with us in dialogue using his baby language. He would respond differently to when he is being spoken to in English, Latvian or Spanish; the main languages of his environment.
As digital nomads and entrepreneurs, he is with us 24/7 meaning he hears my multilingual conversations on a daily basis, my partner and I have constant dialogues with him and continuously expose him to new environments such as taking him to the beach, spending time in nature, in the garden and going out on daily walks around our neighbourhood.
THE ROLE OF TOUCH
We think of children soaking up words like being sponges. And if it is indeed a sponge that they are touching, chances are high this will be the next word getting added to their vocabulary.
Objects that children can hold and interact with physically on their own are learned more earlier than vocabulary for abstract ideas and concepts.
One study in the cognitive sciences explored this by looking at how children learn words based on items that can be touched and interacted with by the child. Parents were asked to rate how easily their little one could physically interact with the object, idea or experience that the word referenced. The results showed that the words that refer to objects easy for children to interact with were also the very words they learned at an earlier age. *
For example, even though the words spoon and sky are both part of common, everyday vocabulary, spoon is usually learned earlier because it is something the child can explore with their body whereas sky is not.
WHY PHYSICAL EXPERIENCE MATTERS
Did you know that whether it is the child holding the object or the parent changes the entire experience?
I notice the different responses in my son when we walk around the garden and he touches the leaves as I teach him what the Latvian word for “leaf” is. He is more alert and receptive in his responses compared to if I were to simply speak to him about the garden without any direct stimulation from the environment around him.
Across multiple studies, children were equipped with body cameras to allow researchers to view the environment exactly as the child would.
What they found in one study was that 18-month-old toddlers were more likely to learn the name of a new object when they held it and less likely to learn the name if it was held by their parent. Another study showed that 15-month-olds who spent more time manipulating new objects had learned more nouns by the time they were 21 months old.
And it makes sense why children learn the names of objects they get to touch sooner than others. At any given time, there are many different objects in a child's vision. When a parent names a particular object, it is a lot more difficult for the child to know what the parent is talking about. However, when children are holding or touching a specific object, that object is much closer to them and fills more of their vision, making it easier for them to connect the word the parent has used with the object they see.*
Physically connecting with an object makes it easier to identify its meaning and the letters or spoken sounds of the word. A recent study found this to be true with children in grades two and four, who were able to read and recognise the words for objects that were easy to interact with much more effectively than others.
“The children recognized the words with higher 'Body Object Interaction' (BOI) ratings at higher accuracy rates and higher response speeds more than the words with lower BOI ratings, showing a BOI effect.”
The key element here is real life, physical interaction. It is not the same if children are interacting with something on a screen. Children who had more screen time per day were found to not be as fast or accurate in their responses.
“This is because increased screen time may reduce the quantity and quality of physical experiences that children have with objects in their environment.”*
Of course children will come to learn words for concepts that are abstract and intangible, such as sky, however research shows that it can be of great benefit to give children opportunities to have sensory play to help advance their vocabularies.
Through touching, grasping and interacting children develop not only their motor skills, but as exemplified in the various studies mentioned above, physical experience is just as important for a child to acquire new words and develop their language skills.
This is why the holistic learning approach is so important; because it takes advantage of all elements of your being, thereby enhancing your capacity to learn whilst simultaneously improving your overall wellbeing.
This is great news because it means learning can literally take place anywhere with anything (provided it is safe of course) that is in your immediate environment!
No matter your current situation, this holistic learning approach to enhanced language acquisition can be applied to your child’s development. As we take education beyond the industrial and technological revolution, let’s craft a future for our children that includes all their faculties while simultaneously enhancing their wellbeing.
Let’s connect the world through holistic education.
If you would like to know more about holistic language learning and how to connect with your child deeper through language, you can connect with me via firstname.lastname@example.org, Instagram, LinkedIn or visit my Website.
Lina Vasquez is a Holistic Learning Coach, Polyglot, YouTuber and Co-Founder of A Life OnPurpose & LVL Holistic Learning. Her work seeks to revolutionise the education sector by fostering deep, holistic, human connection on a global level; doing so in 7 languages.
1. Chen Yu, Linda B. Smith, Embodied attention and word learning by toddlers, Cognition, Volume 125, Issue 2, 2012, Pages 244-262, ISSN 0010-0277, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2012.06.016.
2. Romeo RR, Leonard JA, Robinson ST, et al. Beyond the 30-Million-Word Gap: Children’s Conversational Exposure Is Associated With Language-Related Brain Function. Psychological Science. 2018;29(5):700-710. doi:10.1177/0956797617742725
3. Xu, Z., Liu, D. Body–object interaction effect in word recognition and its relationship with screen time in Chinese children. Read Writ(2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-021-10238-2