What would happen if a child were not exposed to speech early in life? Does it develop innately, or would it stagnate?
This story presents the suggestion that a child who was not exposed to interaction with speaking people did not develop spoken language, or even the ability to read or write. (Of interest, and conflict, however, is that the child had access to TV so would have heard language.)
The premise of this story is not unheard of, though not in most recent accounts. In the past there have been several so-called “feral children” discovered in remote areas, supposedly raised in the wild by animals, without human interaction. It is notable that while these children were then raised in a human society, most never developed more than rudimentary language and overall communication skills. The theories about this lack of development is that there is a crucial stage of an infant/child’s development where they have the ability to learn language, and when that sensitive period has passed, appropriate language development is impossible.
Neurology research has shown that the brain of the infant and young child is very plastic and can not only recover from early insults, but also is able to absorb and learn in a way that it loses over time. This does support the theory that a child has a critical period of development in which they must be exposed to language and be supported in developing the use of interaction and communication. Children who are neglected early in life and have limited interaction with caregivers suffer profound and lifelong impairments, such as was seen in many orphanages in the Russian areas at one time. These children, in the most severe cases, simply do not recognize language as meaningful, or if they do, it is limited.
It is entirely possible that a critical period is an integral portion of a child’s development, which also leads one to think that if there is a critical period, which this period can also be used to the child’s advantage. If a child is stimulated, interacted with, exposed to learning opportunities, during this time then perhaps there could also be lifelong benefits by the added and focused interaction. Overall, an awareness of a critical period of development should be passed on to parents. With support, parents can easily increase their understanding of the impact of their play with their infant, and the benefits that this presents to the growing brain. All those times a parent spends gazing into their child’s eyes, cooing and talking to them, mimicking their vocalizations and expanding upon them, play into the development of the beginnings of language and provide the building blocks for long-term growth. By engaging their child, a parent is building the start of language, the interest in interaction, the joy of socialization which becomes a driving force for future communication. Even a child who may have developmental delays or challenges will benefit from the focused interaction during the critical period. It can be argued that for this child, the benefits are even more profound as one can make the most of the best learning time in the child’s life.
So, if critical periods for language development are present and active, as observed and suggested, then this is a wonderful opportunity to make the most of a child’s innate ability to learn!