The Toddler Brain (2)

In my previous blog I began looking at the toddler brain. In this blog I want to think about the development of language. As with all my blogs I am not just interested in how language develops but how the development of language and mental health interact.

Language development starts very early in the infant’s life. Infants start using their voice soon after birth and within a few weeks they start to ‘babble’. We know that by 9 months infants begin to understand the meaning of some words and just before 1 year the first recognisable words appear. These will usually be relational words like ‘mama’ or ‘dada’. Between 12 and 20 months the vocabulary grows and by the end of the second year infants have between 50 and 100 words and can use some in combination. From about 5 years old the child develops the ability to create stories and communication becomes more complex.

Often when people think about language they talk about it developing in the left brain but as we will see it needs both sides of the brain in order to develop the kind of social language needed in our complex societies.

Before we start thinking about the development of language it would be helpful to think about what it is? Language allows us to be part of a social group, to communicate ideas, thoughts and feelings. It is essential for the complex societies in which we live and the development of intimate relationships. If we lived on our own with no contact with another human being we would not need language. However Language is not just a way of labelling something – the actual or literal meaning of the word – although this is part of it. Language is coloured and nuanced by emotional meaning, and we have to be able to think about what might be going on in someone else mind (understand their intentions) in order to make sense of what they are saying. We also communicate in so many ways which are not verbal, hand movements, facial movements, the emotion which we are feeling, the social group we come from, our age, sex, even down what we wear. We understand what someone means not just by what they say but who they are and how they say it. What we say is sometimes called the denotative aspect of language whereas all the other bits are the connotative aspect. These two parts of language use different parts of the brain. The denotative aspect of language is processed through the left side of the brain and the connotative aspects of language through the right side. This means that for the development of complex language the right brain has to undergo the kind of development we thought about in my first and second blog and the right and left brain have to be well connected.

Let us begin by exploring the denotative aspects. Learning to talk is a very complex process which involves us hearing language, understanding its meaning, thinking about what is said, thinking about our response and communicating this response. This means no one area of the brain is responsible for language but a number of different places. Two important parts are the Broca region which is located in the frontal lobe and the Wernicke region, situated in the temporal lobe. These 2 areas are connected to each other. The Broca region is designed to allow us to communicate our ideas to others using speech. It is also responsible for the understanding of ideas while the Wernicke region helps us process spoken and written language. Individuals with damage to the Broca region have difficulty with speech. Their speech is slow, grammatically incorrect, and they use simple words. The person can understand language they just can’t articulate and communicate these ideas verbally.

Both of these areas of the brain are consolidated in the first year. The most dramatic changes happen in year 2. With the frontal lobe and temporal lobe developing many more synapses and becoming more connected.

The development of the temporal lobe is influenced by hearing language from before birth. Children who are brought up in isolation do not seem to be able to go on to learn to use verbal language. So if children do not hear talking they do not develop the physical capability to talk. Additionally the physical structures which are needed for babbling develop in the first year of life and unless these structures are used they will not reach their full potential. So the ability to develop the complex linguistic abilities I described above does not just start at a year old but very early on. We are attuned to language from before birth. Babies can hear their mother’s voice before they are born and will prefer her voice to any other when they are born. If she speaks they will look towards the direction of her voice. A 2 day old baby will also prefer to hear people who are speaking in their native tongue. Research has also shown that children who are not exposed to lots of speech are much less likely to have good linguistic abilities. So it is essential for parents to talk to their baby from birth as well as to other people in their babies company. It is also essential that parents describe their infant’s feelings to them this helps the infants begin to distinguish how they feel, and which feelings belong to them. It also allows the child to build up an emotional vocabulary.

Now let us explore the connotative aspects, the how something is said, especially it’s emotional meaning. As we know until we are 18 months old the right brain is in the ascendency and any vocalisations by the baby and the parent send messages to this part of the brain. Before 18 months old so much of what parents are doing is helping our children to be interested in relationships, to see them as enjoyable and lively and worth exploring. Most babies (there are exceptions including children who are Autistic) are naturally interested in relationships and generally only lose this interest if their primary relationships are frightening and distressing. The majority of infants are also interested in growing and developing to become more like their older siblings and parents. Speech is another part of this, if you are spoken to in an open and enjoyable way, about yourself and who you are it creates a desire in the baby to learn about this thing called talking and how they can use it to help them be part of the relationships that are so valuable to them. It also makes them interested in themselves and who they are and in other people and who they are.

Babies across all cultures prefer ‘parentese’ to adult directed speech. When we talk to them in that high pitched voice, with longer vowels, longer pauses and lots of repetition it delights them, releasing good chemicals into the blood stream and leaving them happy and relaxed. This is because infants are not so much interested in the individual words but the rhythm, prosody and tempo of the speech, they are using the sound of the speech to understand intention. Infants can very quickly distinguish between a voice that is annoyed and one that is pleased and what researchers have found is that ‘parentese’ is much more effective in communicating emotion. So very early on the baby is using his right brain capacity to understand the social and emotional element in speech.

Alongside the development of language other higher order activities are developing, all that early care and attention creates a basis for the development of self-awareness, with an infant becoming aware of their own emotions and intentions. With their developing language they are now able to put these feelings or intentions into words. Additionally language plays a very important role in good mental health. If we are able to label our feelings in words it enables us to monitor our thoughts and feelings, and understand the link between them. There is also evidence to suggest that putting our feelings into words strengthens the integration of the right and left brain. This means that our feelings and our ability to think and talk about our feelings are well integrated. We are no longer just driven by our unregulated feelings but we can use our brain to manage them. At this point there is a shift from right brain to left brain dominance. As this shift occurs our brain becomes less open to change.

Finally if children can label their feelings they can communicate them to others. This is vitally important as it gives them a way of telling us when something is wrong. Let us think about 3 year old, Lisa, who has been at nursery while you have been at work. When you pick her up she has been crying. Lisa has let the nursery worker know that Douglas had pushed her. The worker thought she might be physically hurt and asked her if she had a bump. Lisa said that Douglas had frightened her and made her feel sad. He had hurt her feelings. Many studies have shown that there is a clear link between an ability to talk about our feelings and emotional security.

The idea that people have separate minds and speech seem to develop at the same time, around one year. The better a child is at understanding others minds and intentions the more sophisticated their language skills will be. I believe an essential part of speech development is the ability to know that someone has a separate mind to you.

I have worked with under 5’s and their parents for the last 20 years and have seen a number of children with elective mutism. The child can talk but chooses not to. I have long held the opinion that elective mutism and issues of separation are linked. A toddler who holds onto the belief that she is not separated from her parent or parents and that her and her parents share the same mind has no reason to develop language.


Now the science bit is over what does this mean for parents, both birth parents and parents of adopted and fostered children.


Birth Parents

  • Talk to your baby from as close to birth as possible, watch how they respond, and use it to determine the flow and tempo of your speech.
  • Talk to your baby about how they feel and to a degree how you feel. It does not have to be sophisticated. If you have left your baby just that little bit too long and his screams have become really angry just a simple sentence like ‘Oh dear, has mummy left you too long, naughty mummy, no wonder you are so angry’.
  • Enjoy your baby, and use language to communicate this to them.
  • Infants like to be talked to in ‘parentese’ but if you feel too stupid using this, and this feeling does not ease with practice then just talk to your baby in a way which communicates enjoyment and fun.
  • As your baby gets older introduce them to lots of new words, explain what these mean even if they can’t necessarily use them themselves research shows that the more words we use to and around children when they are young the richer their language will be.
  • Take them to places where they see you talking to other people, babies and toddlers learn by watching and taking in what their grown-ups do as well as by ‘doing’.
  • Respond to their ‘babble’ as if it is talking. Although sometimes they may enjoy ‘talking to themselves’.
  • Take the opportunity to talk to your baby and toddler even if it feels like you are talking about mundane and everyday things. Chances are it will not be mundane for them – but times of quiet are important also.
  • Don’t tell your child off for not being able to pronounce something, repeat it to them in the correct way.
  • If your child can talk don’t just respond to his finger, encourage him to say the word.
  • Children develop at different speeds but if you are concerned about your child’s speech speak to your health visitor. If there is no reason to suspect something physical or tests have been done then do hold in mind that there may be a psychological reason, and meeting with a psychologist or psychotherapist who have experience with young children may help.
  • It is difficult to diagnose autism in very young children but if you are concerned that your baby or toddler does not seem interested and responsive to relationships start by speaking to your health visitor. If you remain concerned an appointment with a psychologist or psychotherapist who has experience with children who have autism may help.


Adopted or Fostered Children

In my experience emotional language is a difficult area with children who have abusive and neglected histories. Children are either withdrawn or unregulated. This is probably because they have no or very little experience of their feelings being noticed, taken seriously and given a name. They struggle to recognise their own emotional states and often assume how others are feeling. They also struggle with the idea that they have a separate mind to their carers and usually assume that other people will respond in a way that reflects their own undigested experiences. I.e. they may assume you are angry if they have done something wrong. They often struggle to use their present experience as evidence for what they and their present caregivers are feeling. However children and young people will be at very different places and have very different capacities so this is just some general advice.

For me the first step is to help children name their feelings at whatever age. This will require you to be able to identify what is going on for them and talking to them about it. Developing a different experience for your child and changing the established brain patterns will take time and you will need to give them a different experience many times before they can internalise it.

Early on there is little to be achieved by asking the child or young person how they feel, although important to try this every now and then. It would be like asking a baby to describe how they feel. I have often sat in the room with a child who has had a difficult histories and I can see they are trying to put into words what they are thinking and feeling – they are trying to talk about the problem rather than acting it out – but they give up in confusion- as they cannot find the words. Some children can allow you to help them at this point but some just feel persecuted by not being able to do it and give up altogether.

If your child remains withdrawn or unregulated and does not appear to be learning from the different experience you are giving them then do seek help. I have spent many hours thinking with foster and adoptive parents about making, sometimes quite small, changes to how they manage a child’s behaviour and/or how they talk to a child about their thoughts and feelings in order to enable change to take place. If you are getting it right and the child is still struggling you may need to access a long term therapy like psychoanalytic psychotherapy to help the child be able to make the internal changes which are needed in order to take in and use the very different experience you are giving them.

Your social worker might be able to help or one of the support organisations e.g. Adoption UK. Sometimes just a one off consultation with an experienced professional can help you find a way forward, sometimes something more in depth might be needed.

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