By: Gelsey Brizo
Let’s Talk Critical Learning Period
If you’re familiar with the concept behind Smart Coos, you’re probably also familiar with the critical learning hypothesis our program is inspired by. If not, I’ll provide a brief background. Studies have shown that when we are born, our brains possess all the neurons we will ever need and then some. As we grow older, the neurological pathways we use the most will get strengthened by the excess of neurons, while those that don’t get used as much will deteriorate or lessen in strength. This process takes place until around the time we hit puberty and sets up the functioning of our minds for the remainder of our lives. The critical learning hypothesis is built around the idea that the more pathways you strengthen during this period, the higher and more efficient your cognitive function will be in the future1.
To understand this more in depth, Casey Lew-Williams, an assistant professor at Princeton, conducted extensive research on early childhood development with Princeton’s baby lab. Lew-Williams examined and measured child learning based on language comprehension 2. Deciphering a language you are not familiar with is like taking apart a code made up of numbers and letters you didn’t know existed. Somehow, during our first few years of life, we are able to decipher this code and even learn to use it ourselves. How is it that the baby brain can do this? That is exactly what Lew-Williams and his team were trying to figure out. They carried out hundreds of different experiments on newborns and toddlers, all focused on how children learn and understand language. In one experiment, a baby was shown two pictures, one of a ball and one of a car. The baby was then instructed to “find the ball”. Although the 18 month olds could not speak yet, their eyes darted over to the picture with the ball first. Even if they couldn’t speak the language yet, through eye movements and other gestures the researchers concluded that the babies could understand the language being spoken. How quickly infants were able to perform this simple exercise, helped predict their learning strength up to 6 years afterwards 2.
Similarly, when a second language was introduced to two and three year olds, even though they could not understand the language just yet they still picked up on the frequencies of the other language and were able to distinguish and predict how words were supposed to be used. They might have not understood the meanings of those words, but they understood the structure of the language. This means that they know how a language is used before they actually know what the individual words mean. Through experience they can eventually attribute meaning to the words they hear and are able to, in turn, speak it themselves, (Hotchkiss). Children are little geniuses at this age, taking statistics on language and observing the world for clues as to the meaning of everything that is going on around them. Because of the abundance of neurons we are born with, at no other time in life is this prodigious learning possible. This is why exposing your child to Smart Coos, and other early learning programs, is advantageous for their development and future learning.
Now, although stronger neurological pathways are built during the critical learning period, regular stimulation of these pathways is still needed to keep them active. Just like an unused battery will still lose its charge after a long period of disuse, your mind will lose its strength if not properly exercised. That’s why Lew-William’s student teams have started early learning initiatives all over the New Jersey area, mostly targeting underprivileged children in their campaign to close the 30 million word gap. This gap refers to the gap in words children in underprivileged homes get to hear in comparison to those in upper class homes, before they start school. They have created programs where homeless children read books everyday so they have the opportunity to hear an abundance of words, as well as programs that encourage parents to read to their kids and inform them of how critical the first few years of their child’s development really is. According to Lew- Williams, “Differences between children in early learning matter for a lifetime,” 2 and that is exactly why he and his team are working so hard to understand how children learn and then help the parents in the community understand how they can help their children succeed.
I hope this has given you a good idea of how the critical learning hypothesis works and the importance it holds in, not only language learning, but brain development as a whole. Smart Coos recognizes and values the importance of this hypothesis and its potential benefits for all children and their families. If a good mental foundation is established during the critical learning period, then your child will have a higher chance of succeeding in language learning as well as strengthening their learning capabilities. There’s a reason the word “critical” is part of the name of the hypothesis. So, what are you waiting for?
About the Author:
Gelsey Brizo. A senior at the University of Florida pursuing a degree in English. Born and raised in Miami, Florida she speaks both English and Spanish fluently and loves to watch and play soccer. A book fanatic who enjoys to read and write, she can’t go a day without a cup of coffee, a good read or her favorite music.
Burgess, Beverly. “Language Acquisition and Retention.” Language Acquisition and Retention. Bryn Mawr College, 2005. Web. 3 Nov. 2015
Hotchkiss, Michael. “Baby Talk: Looking inside Young Minds for Clues to Early Learning.” Princeton University. Trustees of Princeton University, 1 Oct. 2015. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.