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Language Development- The effects of environment

One of the best discussions of language, and how it is affected by the environment, comes from the Harvard Preschool Project, headed up for many years by Burton White. Two books produced by the project , creatively named Experience and environment, volume 1 and volume 2, are, in my opinion, classics and provide an excellent introduction to the topic of environmental effects. Another author who has contributed a great deal to what we know about home environment and language development is Bettye Caldwell, later joined by Robert Bradley, who created a measure called the Home Observation for Measurement of the Environment.

What is important in the environment to promote language development

1. Live language exposure is one of the most important factors in the development of language from birth to three. Children who developed relatively poorly, White found, were actually exposed to more total language, when he counted mechanical language, that is, conversations of characters on TV, songs on the radio, etc. 

Those educational products such as tapes which come with children's books, so they can follow along as a book is read, children's records and educational television are not nearly as valuable for children's language development, White found, as having an individual TALK TO A CHILD. Simple, huh? Cheap,too. Free, even. 

Common sense? Maybe not as common as you would think. Today, as every other day, Julia and I went on a walk. As every day, I talked to her about everything we passed,
"That's a wall, Julia, that's a painting on the wall.
That's a dog in the painting."
As every day, passersby looked at me as if I was nuts.

Oh, well.

Julia has a toy from the Teletubbies, a public television "educational" program for young children. Research suggests that she will benefit much more from Jennifer TALKING to her about the program and her toy than she will from watching the program itself.

Children need to be SPOKEN to. Not only do they need to HEAR lots of live language but they also learn better if some of that language is directed at them. Here is Julia's dad talking to her about what is in the tank.

And here, is what she is looking at.According to Vygotsky, one of my all-time favorite guys in developmental psychology, children learn language best when the instruction is focused on whatever they are experiencing at the moment. "See the crabs, Julia"


#3. Variety in Daily experiences
Think for a second about what you have seen and heard of Julia in these last few pages. She has been to the aquarium. She has a sister to play with her Teletubbies toy with her. She goes on daily walks. Her mother talks to her. She has a mountain of bath toys.  People sing to her. Her father talks to her.

Now, think what you know about Piaget-- children learn through interaction with the environment. (To be fair, Vygotsky said the same thing). The more variety you have in your daily experiences as an infant, the more LANGUAGE you need. 

You (the student) probably don't know the word "caracole". That is what the half turn a horse and rider make in an equestrian pattern is called. Unless you compete in Olympic horseback (equestrian) events, you have probably never had the experience of seeing a caracole and it hasn't made any major impact on your life that your experience was limited and you didn't know that particular word. 

However, the MORE limited your experience is, the FEWER words you know. When Julia starts school, and there is a chapter in the reading book on aquariums, or rubber duckies, or computers or zoos or crabs or .... she will have an advantage in learning to read over other children who have not had those experiences. It all adds up.

Go to the next page (on infant social and emotional development)


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