Children learn to speak early – but grammar takes time
Only at the age of 10 do children understand complex sentences almost as well as adults. Researchers say that brain maturation sets the pace for language development.
In the children’s language laboratory, Michael Skeide practices with the children on a dummy fMRI so that they are prepared for the real measurements. (Image: MPI Leipzig)
Three-year-olds understand simple sentences with ease. However, many years will pass before children master the subtleties of language as well as adults. Because the brain matures in stages. While the first structures of language processing are fully functional before birth and babies are unconsciously able to distinguish simple syllables like ma and pa, others only develop in the age of three to ten, such as Michael Skeide and Angela Friederici in an opinion article in Write "Nature Reviews Neuroscience".
At the age of three, children are able to understand simple sentences such as “The fox is chasing the hedgehog” with ease. But with a more complex sentence structure, such as "The fox hunts the hedgehog", three-year-olds and also eight-year-olds still have problems. This requires basic grammatical knowledge that is processed in later maturing brain structures.
Skeide and his colleagues recently showed the age at which these structures develop in a study in which they compared the brain activity of children between three and ten years of age with that of adults. Since it was difficult to examine young children using the appropriate methods, such data had been missing until then. For functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the test subjects have to lie still for a long time, and that in a noisy tube – a big challenge for small children.
Children as subjects
That’s why a fMRI dummy was first built, says Skeide. In this tube they would have practiced the whole procedure in peace with the children: until they were able to keep calm and concentrate on the audio samples, sentences with simple words but differently complicated structure.
Previously, it was known that speech processing in under three-year-olds mainly takes place in brain areas in the left temporal lobe. Within a few milliseconds, what is heard is subconsciously divided into syllables and sentence elements. Objects in the environment are assigned a meaning. Babies learn all of this from the first year of life. In those over three years of age, areas in the left frontal lobe (in the forehead brain) are then activated, which react with specific age to complex linguistic information.
Higher thinking processes take place in the frontal lobe: Information that is still processed separately at different locations in the temporal lobe, such as the wording, the meaning of individual words or their position in the sentence, is combined here and compared with basic knowledge of grammar. Only through this higher integration performance in the frontal lobe can more complex sentences be understood.
The networking of the areas involved also plays a role here. Because the stronger the connections, the faster the information flows in the brain. In fact, the researchers observed that the connections between the frontal and posterior areas in the parietal lobe in children increased with age. The stronger they were, the better the understanding of language.
The various steps in language development have been intensively researched since the 1960s, says Skeide. Therefore, one already knew in which stages the language development takes place, but not why. "From our investigations, we can now conclude that the maturation of the language virtually sets the pace," he says.
It has long been known that children have an immature brain. This organ, which is so important to us, matures into young adulthood – in constant communication with the environment. There seem to be defined time windows for certain development steps. This is documented at least for the senses. If no information comes in through the eyes or ears in a corresponding period of time, the sense of sight and hearing develop only rudimentarily. The extent to which this also applies to language acquisition is still controversial among experts.
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