Maybe you’re like me: I speak English fluently and Spanish terribly. I studied Spanish for years in school, and although I did pretty well, I never became fluent. Someday I’d love to move to a Spanish-speaking country for a year and immerse myself in the language to see what would happen. Until then, it recently helped me understand child brain development.
I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t speak English. If I didn’t know better, I could be forgiven for thinking that I was born an English speaker. But we all know that’s not what happened. Instead, I learned the language from my parents. Unlike my high school Spanish class, they didn’t make me memorize lists of nouns or conjugate verbs. They just talked to me.
Eventually, my brain heard them talk enough that the noise of their speech eventually started to make sense. Perhaps they said “no” to me over and over and over again. Odds are that would have been one of my first words. I certainly didn’t hear any Spanish as a child, and: Surprise! I don’t speak much Spanish.
Now let’s examine how I learned Spanish. I sat in a classroom for a few hours each week and tried to memorize words and rules for grammar. Eventually, some of it stuck, but it never felt natural. I kept having to think in English about what they were saying and then convert that back into a Spanish response. Here’s the process if someone speaks the word “agua” to me in Spanish:
- My ears hear the sound “agua.”
- My brain takes the word “agua” and realizes it’s not an English word.
- My brain classifies the word as Spanish.
- My brain then “looks up” the meaning of the word in English. It is Spanish for water.
My brain is really slow at this process. In fact, it’s so slow that it takes longer to process each word than it takes to speak the word. So if someone starts speaking to me in Spanish, I can understand the first few words and then my brain quickly gets overwhelmed and can’t keep up. Anything past the first few words becomes noise as I work through the short queue my brain can actually handle.
Let’s flip back to English. All native speakers’ brains can process speech faster than it’s spoken. But what if there’s a difference in processing times?
Imagine that someone is speaking to you at a rate of one word per second (1 second = 1000 milliseconds). Let’s say it takes my brain 700 milliseconds to process and it takes your brain 200 milliseconds. Now imagine we’re both sitting in a third grade classroom. Sure, each of us can hear what the teacher is saying, but you’ve got 800 milliseconds to absorb, digest, and think about the meaning of each word, its context, and to anticipate the next word coming up. I’m running by a much slimmer margin of 300 milliseconds to do the same thing.
In this scenario, the difference between you and I would be profound. You would be smart and I would struggle. The difference would accumulate throughout the course of our school careers. You would consistently have higher grades, a larger vocabulary, better SAT scores, and a better chance at doing well in life.
Children’s language-processing speed is heavily determined by how much their parents talk to them during their first years of life. Once the window closes, there’s no going back. My younger sister can read twice as fast as me because she read a lot more as a young child whereas I didn’t start reading books for my own enjoyment until I was a teenager. There’s no number of books I can read at my current age to catch up to her reading speed.
As a parent of a 4-year-old and a 1-year old, I think about this all the time. I want them to grow up to be smart, happy, and able to pursue any dream they choose. I love knowing that spending time talking to them is exactly what’s best for them at this point in their life.