Despite the typos and sloppy grammar you may find on this blog I always excelled at Language Arts in school, but that had to do with writing. I never even considered delving into linguistics. I had a hard enough time getting through my second year of Spanish. However, now having a daughter that is deaf and therefor cannot speak, I am learning all kinds of fascinating facts about language. I’m learning about the intricate art and science of language, and how every one of us communicating in whatever form we learned naturally, is an absolute miracle!
I watched a National Geographic documentary earlier this year called The Science of Babies before I knew of SJ’s hearing loss. It touched on the fact that babies are born being able to produce and hear all sounds alike. An American newborn is processing Chinese just as well they are English, but since they will hear English the most they will start to perceive it as their native language very early on. Eventually they will learn to understand English and speak English and have an accent. Understanding and putting together all of these different speech sounds is called phonological development. The English language has about 44 phonemes, out the potential 150 phonemes used in languages throughout the world.
The thing that I am discovering in my most recent research of hearing/language and our amazing minds is that you have to “use it or loose it”. As an infant you had the potential to roll your R’s along with the best mariachi singer in Mexico, but there are many people whose language doesn’t include this sound and therefore they can’t roll their R’s at all (my husband is one of those people). Did you know that most Germans can’t pronounce squirrel? It all has to do with something called phonemic awareness. Our pastor was preaching from the book of Judges chapter 12 recently. He described when the Ephraimites where trying to escape over the Jordan after battle. The Gileadites had secured the river fords to try and stop them. For every soldier trying to cross they would ask them to say the Shibboleth, because they knew the Ephraimites wouldn’t be able to pronounce it. The Ephraimites would then say Sibboleth and were therefor exposed as refugees trying to escape. There you have it. Even way back in the Old Testament, you can find a perfect example of how our brains naturally use and dismiss certain phenomes according to our dialect as we develop language.
If you don’t use it, you loose it. All of this information is not only intriguing, but it is also very important to me because of SJ’s hearing loss. SJ can hear vowels and so that is what she identifies as language. Her brain is currently wiring her to determine what she should “use” and everything else she will “loose”. She is at a very critical age where we either decide that oral communication is not important for her, or we can try to take advantage of the modern technology that will enable her to hear speech before it’s basically too late. We are currently making use of hearing aids, but they can only amplify sound and with her profound loss this isn’t really enough. That is why, by recommendation of her doctors and therapists, we are pursuing the cochlear implant. It’s not the same as perfect natural hearing, but it will create sound rather than just amplify it and allow her to hear and communicate orally.
One of the articles I was given in regards to “Why Early Audition Is Important” (that was the name of the article) talks about how we process sound and why the ages of 0-5 are so critical. Reading it enlightened me to a whole new level of understanding something that I’ve always just taken for granted and that is the development of our natural senses and how they all works. I am going to quote a lot of what I read from this article published in Volta Voices in June 2011because if I paraphrase too much it will probably not be as informative.
“The human brain has a genetic predisposition to want to make sense of the world. This condition of forcing neurons to compete with each other to be selected for “hard wiring” is a necessary biological action that allows the individual to develop the skills necessary to be successful in his or her environment”. Being able to say squirrel is not essential to Germans being successful in their environment, but for Americans it’s part of our language, on the other hand I don’t even want to know what I would sound like trying to speak German or an African clicking language. Moving on, “A fully developed brain has over 100 trillion connections (pruned down from the quadrillions of connections in the 2-year old brain), and there are only 80,000 genes. We use our genes for lots of thing (like neurogenesis and migration) There just aren’t enough for synaptogenesis too. Children during the first two years of life create an overabundance of synaptic connections, which continues until around age 8 as they learn new skills and behaviors. These connections are forced to compete for survival and are either pruned away or cemented based on the amount of electrical activity that occurs at that connection.” WOW! Okay, so as much as I like to talk about neural pathways and all, let me tell you how I translate this. If your brain is a honey comb and it has 100 worker bees they all have to find a job to do fast. They will find work somewhere, but if there is no work in one place then they will move on and take their business elsewhere. That is why it really is true that blind people have heightened senses in other areas, and yes deaf people do tend to have better peripheral vision and sense of vibration etc. All of this pruning and cementing that is going on happens early in life which is why it is so critical to get SJ the resources that she needs as soon as possible. Even though it is a time sensitive issue it’s also good to know that she is well within the right age range for all of this. We can be confident that it is not too late for her to start stimulating that auditory nerve and we are working toward that pretty much every single day.
I am not an expert in all of this, but I love reading and trying to understand as much as possible. To me it puts a whole new spin on education and foreign language. Some of the resources that I have read came from an online article about how children learn language, which prompted me to learn more about phonological development on good old Wikipedia, and of course I already referenced some of the other articles that I read and I’ve included the links for those as well. There is more to all of this and how it directly applies to SJ and her communication abilities, but basically that is the brainy science side of things. In short, use it or lose it!