Saturday, July 25, 2009

Dogs, Dementia, Second Languages & Feral Children

While working on a project this week, I found this article from the Associated Press that talks about scientists unraveling how children become bilingual so easily. I bookmarked it for later research. Coming back to it today, I found a second article that talks about how babies can comprehend Canine language and a third article about kids reacting to body language. Now my head is spinning with all sorts of thoughts.

Childrens' brains are hardwired to learn language in the first three years of life. Spoken word, facial expressions, body gestures, even music are all forms of language which can be absorbed by babies' brains. And they don't care if their learning English, French, Spanish, German or German Shepherd, they're primary goal in their tiny life - even if they don't understand it - is to make their needs known. That means figuring how to use any language they can to communicate with whoever is around them. If there are people, they learn words - even multiple languages. If there are animals, they learn noises. In all cases, they learn body language.

Though your brain might not have gone there right away, as previously stated I'm language obsessed so my thoughts went directly to the sad reality of feral children. Feral children have always fascinated me because it seems to be nearly impossible for them to truly learn language. Feral children are kids who were abandoned or kept confined and away from people during that critical age when they're supposed to learn how to speak. Confined kids used some words, but very primitively. Those who were abandoned and then "raised by" monkeys or dogs didn't use words but mimicked the noises and body language of their "wild families."

Once brought back to civilization or rescued from abusive parents, some were able to learn how to communicate with their caretakers. However, to date none have truly learned the nuances of grammar and syntax. These building blocks of language are actually learned when children are tiny and are refined as they grow older. The younger the feral child was when they were removed from their dire situation, the more likely they were to learn some language. The older they were and the longer they spent "in the wild", the harder it has been for them to communicate.

Conversely, children who are well cared for and immersed in different forms of communication, even before they leave their mother's womb, have a greater grasp of language. They learn how to talk and use sentences earlier in life as they repeat the words and sounds they hear around them. It's easier for them to learn how to play music. I have seen happy, loving families with the occasional barking toddler, but that's fine as long as they talk to people, too! ;)

Exposing kids to multiple languages and music can help them become better at learning a wider range of subjects in school. Think about it: Language is the key to all knowledge. How can information be communicated or understood without a solid foundation for language?

Finally, there may even be evidence that a good grasp of language in the early years of life can stave of dementia and Alzheimer's in the later years.

At any rate, all of this points to the same conclusion that most of us have probably heard of before: There is a critical period or "window of opportunity" when children are young whereby they learn the building blocks of language. The more languages to which they are exposed, be it from Mother, music, the family dog or a Spanish tutor, the better they will be able to communicate and navigate their world when they are older. Read to them, play games, expose them to Opera, teach them how to count in French because there is no such thing as "too young to learn."

That doesn't mean us poor adults are left without recourse. It may take us longer, but we can learn new languages, how to play new instruments or other activities. And there is growing evidence that mental exercises like learning new things, taking up new hobbies, solving crossword puzzles, even traveling can help to stave off dementia and Alzheimer's. Can't teach an old dog new tricks? Don't believe it!

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