Early Language Development: What can we learn from Neuroscience?


From “Lighting up Young Brains”: Save the Children 2016

The science is clear. In the first few years of life, a child’s brain develops rapidly, driven by a mix of experience, environment and genes.

Children will continue to develop throughout childhood and into adulthood, but in the early years their brains are particularly sensitive. By contrast, the science shows that as a child grows older it becomes much more difficult to influence the way their brain processes information.

From birth to age two the brain goes through a period of rapid development and growth. During the first two years of life the brain displays a remarkable capacity to absorb information and adapt to its surroundings.  A fully-grown adult brain has an estimated 86 billion neurons, the majority of which are already formed in the womb (Herculano-Houzel 2009, Goswami 2015).  By age one, the size of a child’s brain is already 72% of adult volume on average and by age two it has grown to 83% of an adult’s volume on average (Knickmeyer et. al. 2008).

At age two, the connections that are being formed in a child’s brain are happening about twice as fast as in an adult’s brain (Stiles & Jernigan 2010). Between age three to five the brain starts to process information in more efficient and complex ways. From age three, a child’s brain begins a phase called ‘synaptic pruning’. This is a period in a child’s life where the brain becomes more efficient and more complex through refining the networks that were formed during the first two years.

At age three a child’s brain is estimated to be about twice as active as an adult’s brain (Brotherson 2009).

At age five a child’s brain uses almost twice as much energy as an adult’s brain to support brain development (Kuzawa et al 2013) This period from age three to five is also critical for children’s language skills.

A child’s language skills develop rapidly during the first few years of life:  On average, a child’s vocabulary expands from 55 words at 16 months, to 225 words at 23 months to 573 words at 30 months (Goswami 2015) We now know that the relationship between young children’s brain development and the emergence of language skills is mutually reinforcing (Rosselli et al 2014). Each of these new words that a child learns helps to strengthen the architecture of the brain. And as that architecture is strengthened, children’s capacity to recognise and use new words grows. Throughout these first five years parents, carers and childcare workers provide crucial support to a growing child.

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