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How children across the world develop language

An episode of the radio show School's In discusses research on the way children learn and develop language and engage with the world around them.

How a child learns its first words, and the similarities of early language acquisition across cultures, is the focus of a recent episode of Stanford Radio's "School’s In" featuring Michael Frank, PhD, a Stanford language and learning specialist.

The radio show is hosted by Dan Schwartz, PhD, dean of the School of Education, and Denise Pope, PhD, a senior lecturer at the school.

Frank discusses research that looks at the way children all over the world learn words, and tips for ways to engage with babies to help them develop new vocabulary.

He draws on a data set collected by over 60 contributing researchers worldwide that includes data analyses on factors like babies’ first words, vocabulary norms, and where infants are in their language development (through the size of their productive vocabulary) at certain ages. The information serves as an open repository for data on children’s early vocabulary development, with interactive analyses from 29 languages — from English and Mandarin to Norweigian and Kiswahili.

In the podcast, Frank emphasizes that babies communicate with the desire to interact with the people and things surrounding them. He highlights an interesting finding that kids around the world are generally fascinated with the same things within their environment, which lead to their early vocabulary development. Top interests include the people around them, animals, and social routines (leading to the words hi, bye, peek-a-boo).

Frank offers valuable tips on how parents and early childhood educators can provide children with an environment that catalyzes language learning. In developing language, Frank explains, engaging your child with their surroundings is the first step:

Through play and rich interaction... [by engaging your child with] objects in front of you in an interaction, where you’re doing a routine like building something with blocks or Legos, that can really help scaffold the beginnings of vocabulary.

Frank highlights that interaction is key in "getting things started", but introducing your child to reading, particularly when interactive, takes their language acquisition to the next level:

When you’re trying to enrich and deepen the vocabulary: reading. Especially reading that’s interactive, that the child is asking questions about. Where you’re really going back and forth and learning the words and figuring out what the story is, that kind of reading really broadens the set of contexts and words outside of the here and now.

The full podcast is worth a listen.

Photo by Dakota Corbin

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