Breaking through the sounds barrier

Researchers now believe babies and young children have a greater ability to extract meaning from the seeming chaos of sounds than was previously thought. Sian Wyn Siencyn says early-years teaching must take this into account These are interesting times in nursery education. Since the new Labour Government and the National Assembly, we have had a flurry of initiatives, white and green papers, and other strategies that have kept us on our toes.

In Wales, we are currently engaged in lively discussion about the learning needs of young children, about how quality is defined and how it is identified in nursery settings and where three-year-olds will be best served. All this is long overdue.

Perhaps we should also be looking at how we need to revolutionise our own understanding. Brain science and neurology present us with formidable evidence of the learning potential of young children and how important adults are in developing that potential.

What we now know about the human brain, particularly the brains of babies and young children, should inform our practice in early-years education. We are now beginning to know things - as opposed to theorising - about how children acquire language, the relationship between language and culture, and language and conceptual thought.

This hugely exciting new landscape of human learning has been opened to us by neuroscience and neuropsychology. With its whizzing synapses, transmissions and connections it is busy, dazzling stuff. It will surely have an enormous impact on educational theory.

The work of neuropsychologists such as Patricia Kuhl is fascinating. Her studies focus on young children acquiring language and on how infants perceive sounds from other languages. When young babies are surrounded by language and speech in all its rich chaos, their brains begin to map and organise sounds into categories. To do this, babies become (or are born) attentive and meaningful listeners. Kuhl suggests that so great is the evidence in favour of critical age that "one direct implication for the education system is that spending money on teaching high school students languages doesn't make nearly as much sense as spending money on teaching language to pre-schoolers".

When considering how best to encourage children's language development, their bilingualism and multilingualism, we have tended to get bogged down in methodologies. Cultural constructs (shape, number, and colour seem to be particular favourites) have been promoted through an endless supply of games, and basic language patterns have been the driving force in both immersion and bilingual nursery classes. No wonder young children slope off "to be naughty".

In nursery settings, adults seem only to feel confident linguistically with the world of the present, the concrete world of things and events. We shy away from using language for real engagement with young children and from exploring the inner world of emotions, impressions and expectations. It is as if children only live in limited dimensions. We are not vocal enough, confident enough, nor perhaps well-informed enough, to insist that emotional literacy is every bit (more so, some would argue) as important as the other literacy which has so dominated the educational agenda.

We are too tentative when it comes to languages and young childre. "Is wedyn (Welsh for "afterwards") a tomorrow word?" a three-year-old recently asked me. Is it indeed? Wedyn is only one in a seemingly endless list of abstract descriptors for time that a young child has to decode (tomorrow, Wednesday, later, last Saturday, birthday, half-an-hour, nearly, soon, two minutes, bedtime). A combination of later and after, wedyn is more than both. How can children in post-millennial Wales live enriching and enriched lives without the cultural concept of wedyn?

Something like 35 per cent of three-year-olds in Wales are in Welsh immersion nursery settings (in some areas it is more like 90 per cent) and much of this is due to the epic contribution of Mudiad Ysgolion Meithrin. Although the desirable outcomes and Estyn's inspection framework expect nursery provision to offer children experiences of Welsh and the Cwricwlwm Cymreig, because provision is so diverse there is real concern that many of the other 65 per cent of three-year-olds have little or no experience of Welsh. We need to develop new and bolder approaches to unlocking their monolingual worlds.

Although in many respects deeply culturally specific, the Reggio Emilia approach to the education of young children offers a valuable starting point for looking at the role of adults in children's language development. We need to be engaged listeners, encouraging children's communicative and narrative skills (arms, hands, faces, grunts, pauses, sighs). We do not always need to focus so intently on acquisition of patterns and the naming of things.

Do we need to look at how we promote culture in our nursery settings? Are adults in nursery settings too intrusive, too ready to impose linguistic cultures on children?

Acquiring language as an abstraction and languages as specifics is something babies and small children are really good at. What neuroscience tells us is that babies' acquisition of language is even more complex and less sturdy than we thought.

It is more prone to things going wrong. It is a process at the mercy of timing. When considering language, maybe three is much too late for nursery education and four is much too young for school.

Sian Wyn Siencyn is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Education, Trinity College, Carmarthen. She will be speaking on "Early years - language, bilingualism and multi-lingualism: new century, new challenges" on Friday, July 14 at 2.45pm.


Do nursery settings offer children enough of a linguistic challenge? Probably not... unless you call naming and pointing at bears and squares a challenge.

Can young children really cope with different languages? Don't they get confused?

Of course they do... language and the acquisition of language is a confusing business. But then so is learning to be part of the tribe. Two or three languages are no more confusing than one.

What are neurons and synapses and what are they to do with us? It all has to do with the map of the brain and enormous numbers of circuits (neurons) and connections (synapses). Susan Greenfield's The Private Life of the Brain gives the lay reader a challenging introduction to the world of neuroscience. They are important to educators because they bridge the relevance gap between educational theory and the customers themselves - children.

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