More from Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid. She devotes a chapter to how the brain learns to read, which reminded me of the old argument amongst linguists as to whether language is innate or not. Children learn languages at a phenomal pace and with such effortlessness that linguists like Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker (in his The Language Instinct) have concluded that the capacity for language must be an integral part of our genetic makeup. Geoffrey Sampson argued against such a position that the learning prowess of children may derive from a general (rather than a language-specific) learning ability and that, in any case, children show equally impressive progress in other areas of learning. However, I find Pinker’s account more convincing, not the least because of the second “trump” in his argument besides infant learning, namely language disabilities. Pinker lists many speech impairments whose specific nature (affecting only certain grammatical structures or vocabulary areas) suggests that certain parts of the brain are almost exclusively dedicated to language processing. This is a fascinating area of language research and I’m curious about what Wolf will have to say on it.
Irrespective of whether or not children are already equipped with language skills at birth, they still need to learn how to speak, read and write. Up to the age of three, children truly are linguistic geniuses and no matter what you throw at them (even a second language!), they will likely profit from it in some way or other. From age 3-4, things get trickier because you now have to take into consideration the child’s existing knowledge and self-awareness, and thus move within the zone of proximal development to produce efficient and effective learning.
Maryanne Wolf offers some advice on how to go about this. She cautions parents who worry about their child’s reading progress not to try and hurry the child’s development by forcing it to write and read correctly. Research indicates that preschooling your child’s development in such a manner may in fact hamper it later. Wolf recommends that parents (a) read to their children — this enriches the passive semantic and syntactic knowledge of the child (alongside, of course, a knowledge of concepts, social skills, empathy, and so on), which at a later stage will make reading easier and more pleasurable — and (b) offer opportunities to experiment with the sounds of language — playing around with letters, pronunciation, spelling, and listening to nursery rhymes, poems and songs. This will enhance the child’s ability to grasp the underyling phonemic and semiotic principles of a language. In other words, a child has to become familiar with the idea behind naming things and the nature of letters first, only then can it successfully tackle a more complex idea such as character-phoneme correspendece; therefore, it is better to foster an understanding of these ideas and wait with the actual reading and writing until age 6-7.