“Why?” A child’s barrage of questions isn’t cause for frustration, but wonder. By design, their ready-made brain is putting together a map of the universe, and you get to play a part!

“Is the sky sad when it rains?”

How can a baby who can’t talk at all as a newborn end up asking questions like that by age three or four? Most of us can’t remember going through the toddler stage between one and two, but those who do may also recall how “adult talk” sounded—like a foreign language!

Do you remember the French you took? In reality, learning our first language was more demanding than any foreign language. What we had to do before we could produce our first meaningful word—much less string words together in more ways than there are atomic particles in the known universe—is nothing short of miraculous.1

Out of the Mouth of Babes

Months before we started talking, we already knew a lot about the feelings and intentions of others from hearing them talk and seeing their expressions, postures, and actions. By six months, infants already understand many words.2 Babies of a few months also figure out a lot about adult intentions, feelings, and events.

A few months ago, my six-month-old granddaughter came with her mom and dad to see me while I was undergoing life-saving surgeries. I came home looking like a sack of bones. When I was saying goodbye one day, Olivia (now seven months old) kept leaning out of Mimi’s (her grandmother’s) arms and reaching for me. I squeezed her little hand to say goodbye, but she persisted. So I leaned in closer and kissed her. She then took my face in her tiny hands, ignoring the whiskers, and gave me an open-mouthed baby guppy kiss. She seemed to know I’d been hurt and wanted to comfort me.

How does a baby, who can’t yet say a single meaningful word, understand and participate in such complex experiences?

Before Birth

From a pair of cells we were “knitted together” (in Hebrew, sakak) in our mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13). Skin, bones, eyes, ears, and brain were formed from words written in our DNA. About a year later we were walking and beginning to talk. Within just a few more years, with little conscious effort and no formal training, we could understand and produce countless sentences, most of them never before produced in the history of the world. For this work, according to MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, human beings must have “special design.”3

Fetus

During the early weeks of pregnancy, a baby’s growing brain adds 250,000 neurons every minute.

We begin hearing our mother’s language before we are born. Ultrasound moving pictures inside a mother’s womb show that the baby can hear by the middle of the pregnancy, about 19 to 26 weeks. Experts used to say the sounds were muffled, but recordings inside a sheep showed that loud speech is as distinct inside the womb as outside.4

Immediately after they are born, babies already recognize voices from before birth.5 Minutes after the newborn hears Mom’s voice and sees her speaking, the baby will map the familiar voice to the unfamiliar face.6 This first step in language learning depends on the “the hearing ear and the seeing eye” (Proverbs 20:12).

Our ears convert sound waves into electrochemical signals that, with the help of our eyes (and other senses) enable us to connect words with meanings.7 “One must simply be awed by the cochlea,” says one popular textbook on speech pathology.8 The same could be said of all organs involved in language acquisition and especially of the human brain itself.

While figuring out gestures, names, and phrases, the baby is also learning to control the tongue, lips, and voice. As the child matures, speech movements become miraculously faster and mostly beyond conscious control.9

In Proverbs 16:1, Solomon tells us where this ability comes from. He wrote that our thoughts are our own but “the answer of the tongue [the movements of our tongues in expressing our thoughts] is from the Lord.” More than our upright posture, the opposing thumb, and any other human ability, our language capacity mirrors our Creator.

Learning Language Without Seeing or Hearing?

Cube

At birth, the brain already has most of its brain cells, but they reorganize and make new connections throughout life.

Human beings are so designed for learning language that a person who is both blind and deaf can learn connections of words to things. Two well-documented cases are Laura Bridgman10 and Helen Keller.11

Helen’s teacher, Annie Sullivan, began by providing a true mapping of a single word to its usual meaning. To do it, she had to appeal to Helen’s sense of touch. Annie ran cold water over one of Helen’s hands and wrote the word water on the other. Helen realized things she could feel had names.

All language learners depend on such true mappings of words to things. One of the greatest thinkers of all time, Albert Einstein, wrote of science that “[e]verything depends on the degree to which words and word-combinations correspond to the world of impression.” The same holds for language learning: to understand new words and phrases, everything depends on true uses of them in contexts the learner already partially understands. Helen could learn the unknown word water because she was able to map known content from the one hand to the unknown word.

Two Brains

Everyone knows we have two eyes, two ears, and two hands, but most people are surprised to learn that they also have two “brains”! Our brain is divided into two hemispheres, roughly like the halves of a pecan. Helen Keller’s story inadvertently showed how God designed the human brain for language acquisition.

Water running over one of Helen’s hands activated the hemisphere that specializes in processing whole scenes, things, and images. Writing the word water on the palm of the other hand appealed to Helen’s other hemisphere specializing in sequences of linguistic symbols.

The left hemisphere is the talking brain, while the right handles whole chunks of experience, emotion, and feeling. The left brain can tell what you did last summer, but the right brain knows how you felt about each activity then and now.

Between the two brains is the corpus callosum, a bundle of nerve fibers which integrates the two hemispheres, enabling us to acquire language in a rapid growth spiral (Figure 1).12 By six months, a child comprehends a few words and, by one year, will produce a recognizable “first” word. By two years, strings of two words appear and by the third year, a child can distinguish ordinary talk from playacting. By about age four or five, a child can explain the difference between pretending and making a mistake. By about age six to eight, a child can explain the difference between a mistake and a deliberate lie.

Developing Language, One Step at a Time

By the Creator’s design, our unique DNA is assembled inside our mother. Slowly, progressively, our knowledge of Him and our ability to praise Him unfolds like a flower. Even Jesus Christ, the Son of God, began His earthly life this way (Luke 2:52).

To accomplish this marvel, our bodies and brains must grow in parallel. While the body identifies physical reality through our senses, our brain places true representations of this reality onto a mental “map” of the world.

The process begins with familiar things, like “Mama’s” voice. Then our understanding reaches beyond the universe, including deeper spiritual truths. This ability could only come from God (Proverbs 16:1).

Language Diagram

The Hand of God

Just as Einstein said and as my colleagues and I have explained in recent books, all of this language development depends on our God-given ability to acquire true representations of experience in language.

We know from Scripture that God is the one who put within us our understanding of ordinary truth (Romans 2:15). He also gave us the idea of eternity. Solomon wrote: “He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11, NIV).

Without our language learning capacity, languages could not exist, and every vestige of order in the world that depends on language would vanish. All our social systems, history, education, . . . would be gone.

God designed our brains and bodies to understand a “right” view of the world. The physical understanding is built into the middle ear where our semicircular canals are set at right angles so we can tell when we are upright or lying down. This design also tells us when we are walking in a straight line or veering right or left. It enables us to grasp the geometry of “rightness” in multiple dimensions. Linking words truly and correctly with their intended content builds on the idea of right angles, upright posture, and ordinary truth.

A three year old already has an idea about what is right, and by six to eight a child can explain the nature of a lie. God made us able to walk and talk with Him. He alone reveals kindness, justice, and righteousness (Jeremiah 9:24) and is worthy of our praise (see Psalm 19:1–9).

Dr. John Oller, Jr. is the Hawthorne Regents Professor at University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He has taught in prestigious universities and lectured around the world. The Modern Language Association also awarded him the Mildenberger Medal for one of his numerous books.

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Footnotes

  1. G. A. Miller and N. Chomsky, “Finitary Models of Language Users,” in Handbook of Mathematical Psychology, ed. R. D. Luce, R. R. Bush, and E. Galanter (New York: Wiley, 1963). Back
  2. E. Bergelson and D. Swingley, “At 6–9 Months, Human Infants Know the Meanings of Many Common Nouns,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109 (9): 3253–3258. Back
  3. Reflections on Language (New York: Pantheon).p. 27. Back
  4. S. L. Smith, K. J. Gerhardt, S. K. Griffiths, X. Y. Huang, and R. M. Abrams, “Intelligibility of Sentences Recorded from the Uterus of a Pregnant Ewe and from the Fetal Inner Ear,” Audiology and Neuro-Otology 8 (6): 347–353. Back
  5. F. Z. Sai, “The Role of the Mother’s Voice in Developing Mother’s Face Preference: Evidence for Intermodal Perception at Birth,” Infant & Child Development 14 (1): 1–29. Newborns also remember a melody from before birth: C. Granier-Deferre, S. Bassereau, A. Ribeiro, A. Y. Jacquet, and A. J. DeCasper, “A Melodic Contour Repeatedly Experienced by Human Near-Term Fetuses Elicits a Profound Cardiac Reaction One Month after Birth,” Plos ONE 6 (2), e17304. DOI:10.1371. Back
  6. Ref. 5. Back
  7. A. Einstein, “The Common Language of Science,” Out of My Later Years (1941; repr., Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel, 1956), p. 112. Back
  8. J. A. Seikel, D. W. King, and D. G. Drumright, Anatomy and Physiology for Speech, Language, and Hearing (New York: Delmar, 2010). Back
  9. J. L. Ruark and C. A. Moore, “Coordination of Lip Muscle Activity by 2-year-old Children during Speech and Nonspeech Tasks,” Journal of Speech Language and Hearing Research 40 (6): 1373–1385. Back
  10. Charles Dickens (1842) in American notes (retrieved March 16, 2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Notes) tells how Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, a medical doctor and philanthropist enabled Laura Bridgman to learn language. Back
  11. “I’m Not Dumb Now” at http://rare-video-gems.blogspot.com/2009/08/1930-helen-keller-blind-deaf-mute-after.html. Back
  12. J. W. Oller, Jr., S. D. Oller, and S. N. Oller, Milestones: Normal Speech and Language Development across the Life Span, 2nd ed. (San Diego, California: Plural Publishing, 2014). Back