Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Sensitive Periods and Language Acquistion

Porthesia Butterfly in caterpillar stage
Maria Montessori borrowed the term “sensitive periods” from a Dutch biologist named Hugo DeVries.   Through his studies of the caterpillar stage of the Porthesia butterfly’s life cycle, he uncovered what he called “sensitive periods”.  He noticed that when the caterpillars hatched they crawled up the tree toward the light, looking for new tender leaves, which is what they could digest. Later when they were larger, and could eat the older thicker leaves, they lost the sensitivity to light. This idea of the sensitive period for development of certain characteristics in nature was adopted by Montessori and applied by her to the investigation of the development of the child. Dr. Montessori writes,

A sensitive period refers to a special sensibility which a creature acquires in its infantile state, while it is still in a process of evolution.  It is a transient disposition and limited to the acquisition of a particular trait.  Once this trait or characteristic, has been acquired, the special sensitivity disappears. (p.38)

These sensitive periods are a characteristic of the absorbent mind and are universal to all children. Dr. Montessori observed that these sensitive periods act as inner guides that direct the absorbent mind in a specific sequence and manner, giving the child powerful capacities for the attainment of specific characteristics, like language, for instance.  When the characteristic has been acquired, for example, the child is now able to produce words where before she was babbling sounds, she now moves on to exercising conscious control of the function if she so desires, and begins to use language even more.

           The development of language begins at birth, and from birth, the child has a particular sensitivity for language acquisition.  While in utero, the baby can hear the mother’s voice and the voices of other family members and can distinguish them.  The rhythm of language is also accessible to the child at this time.  In the first few weeks of life, the baby can recognize the mother’s voice and actually spends time listening to voices and looking at faces—something that is very satisfying to him.
At about two months, the baby begins to make deliberate sounds in social situations and also while alone.  Babies who are talked to a great deal are more talkative and are more content to be alone.  Their noises have a conversational rhythm and hearing other voices elicits this pre-talking activity.  The baby also begins to realize that voices come from mouths and begins looking at mouths.  He may even want to reach into the mouth and feel it as you are talking.

Around 3 to 6 months, the baby begins the babbling stage and it seems that she is hardly ever quiet.  There is delight in the babbling.  The baby will add consonants to the cooing.  Eventually she begins using all the sounds of speech and she will acquire them more quickly if she is talked to regularly and if the adults respond to her babbling with pleasure.

What is interesting here is that during this time, the baby is babbling sounds that are universal to all languages and then at about 8 to 9 months, he will begin dropping the sounds that are not in his language.  He also begins to repeat the babbling sounds: “ba” becomes “ba-ba”. Soon after, he progresses towards jargoning—speaking with expression or inflections.

At 12 months, the child will most likely speak her first intentional word—something that has meaning attached to it and is used consistently.  Rather quickly, he will acquire more and more words—most of them names of things that have significance; but a few verbs as well.  He practices them over and over again, steadily increasing the vocabulary. At this point, it is important for the adults to use precise language when talking with the child, giving the exact names of things—so pointing out that it’s a “sparrow” that you just saw, and not just saying “bird”.  

When the child is about 18 months to 2 ½ years, there is a great increase in her vocabulary.  She uses phrases and short sentences, first with just two words.  At this point it becomes evident that she has absorbed a lot of the grammar of the language.  We notice that word order in her speech is seldom incorrect, even though there may be words missing from what she says.

At about four years old, the child becomes aware of the power of language and the fact that he can communicate, amuse, make demands and requests, etc.  He is attracted to nursery rhymes, chants and so on and he is aware of the effect that language can have on the world around him.  He might even go through a “bad language” phase, during which time the adults need to continue modeling appropriate use of language while pointing out to him the negative aspects o the “bad language”.  

There is a direct link between the child’s intelligence and her use of language.  The act of speech allows the child to express her thoughts and use her intelligence.  And as we learned earlier, intelligence is also linked to movement.  It is important from birth that the child is given the freedom to move without too many restrictions.

The adult has no control over the emergence of the sensitive periods but can have a very significant role in offering experiences so the child can express these urgings.  Dr. Montessori writes,

There is within it a vital impulse which leads it to perform stupendous acts.  Failure to follow out these impulses means that they become helpless and inept.  Adults have no direct influence on these different states.  But if a child has not been able to act according to the directives of his sensitive period, the opportunity of a natural conquest is lost, and is lost for good. (p. 39)

Naming objects in the environment
During the sensitive period for language, the child needs relationships with adults so that she can express herself through speech and be responded to in a genuine manner.  The adult needs to convey the idea that communication is a personal thing, so making eye contact and letting the child see facial expressions is important.  

The adult can also help by using interesting, correct and varied vocabulary.  Between three and six months, you want to avoid talking down or using baby talk while interacting with the child.  The adult also is responsible for providing an enriching environment that is not too overwhelming.  The most vital thing the adult can do is allow the child to explore his surroundings. 

Montessori, Maria. The Secret of Childhood. Ballantine Publishing Group, New York, NY 1966.
 Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind. Clio Press, Oxford, England, 1988.

Rhonda Lucas-Sabater is an AMI trained Primary (3-6 years old) guide.  She is the mother of five Montessori children and the co-founder of a public charter Montessori school in Washington, DC.  She is also AMI trained at the Assistants to Infancy (O-3) and Elementary (6-12) levels and is an AMI certified Adolescent guide.