If it's your job to develop the mind,
shouldn't you know how the brain works?

For most of the mid-20th Century, the theoretical views of psychologist B.F. Skinner and other behaviorists dominated the field of psychology. Whether the focus was on pigeons learning to depress a lever to receive food or more multifaceted issues such as the complex process of language acquisition, the deliberations were always reduced to "stimulus-response." It was an unavoidable sequence of events. Even conversations about teaching and learning were reduced to the "S-R" model in order to proceed with the discussions surrounding concepts in learning theory.

However, we now recognize a host of additional factors that undeniably influence the outcome -- learning and behavior. Unfortunately, students do not obediently "respond" (remember and immediately embrace) newly presented information. Formal education, to say nothing about parenting, has never been characterized as such an effortless venture met with instantaneous success. Educators might wish a Skinnerian approach were a realistic teaching expectation, especially on those challenging days with the most difficult of students. According to distinguished educator, Art Costa, teaching is considered to be among the most challenging professions in the world, because of the innumerable variables that are not captured in the S-R framework. The challenges instead constitute intermittent and sometimes permanent brain-based obstacles that regularly stand firmly between teaching efforts and student achievement.

Figure 6- the factors influencing learning and behavior
Genetics +Gender
+Pre-natal care (diet,   nutrition, stimulation, etc.) +Emotions/emotional   state
+Early development   (0-3) +Early nutrition
+Parenting +Perception
+Physical history +Neuro-physiology
+Memory +Diet
+Prior learning   (situated L’) +Self-esteem
+Prior experiences +Stress factors
+Formal Education  
"Learning and/or   Behavior"  

How Does Language Get Started In The Brain?

When the infant brain uses its billions of neural networks that work simultaneously with an ever-changing array of interconnections, it renders the developing brain 2.5 times as active as the adult brain. But what is going on in there?

We know that babies begin learning their native language well before birth.

The hearing process develops as early as 16 weeks (gestational age). At that time, a mother's voice regularly reaches the uterus with very little distortion. The sound waves are both produced inside her body and they pass directly through her body where the developing fetus hears that same voice. Acoustic spectroscopy, which makes possible the elaborately detailed printout portraits of sound, similar to fingerprints, has documented prenatal learning of the mother tongue. By week 27 of fetal development, even the cry of a baby is already beginning to embody some of the speech sounds, features, rhythms, and voice characteristics of the language spoken by its mother.

In an experiment by Anthony DeCasper (University of North Carolina, Greensboro) mothers regularly read Dr. Seuss’ famous children’s story, The Cat in the Hat, at predetermined intervals during the third trimester. Once born, their infants were given several choices of recordings, which they could select by sucking on a non-nutritive nipple. The babies skillfully sucked at whatever speed was necessary to obtain their mother's voice reading "The Cat in the Hat" after only a few trials.

Newborns react to language based on the sounds they have heard while still in utero. As a result, French babies prefer to look at people who are speaking their own language, French, while Russian babies will stare at the faces of people speaking Russian.

While still in their mother’s womb, several musical passages were frequently played for the fetuses regularly--such as the theme music for the "Neighbors," the British soap opera, or the bassoon passage from the classic, Peter and the Wolf. The infants identified this same music immediately after birth.

In another recent experiment, French mothers played the same children's rhyme repeated each day from week 33 to week 37 in utero. At the end of four weeks (still inside the womb) the babies responded to this particular rhyme as opposed to similar new rhymes, which they had not heard before, suggesting that they remembered the songs.

But, how does this river of gibberish become language inside the brain of an infant? While in the latter stages of neural development, but still a resident of his mother’s womb, a growing fetus continually hears numerous sounds coming in from the outside environment that his developing brain begins to process midway through the third trimester. In the seventh month of pregnancy, a baby’s tiny brain is already making clear and early decisions on prioritizing the importance of the sounds being captured by his undeveloped auditory cortex, the part of the temporal lobe in the brain that will ultimately be responsible for processing all of the complex sounds that he will stumble upon during his life.

Chief among the sounds are the minute clues to understanding which of sounds will compose the elements that will constitute his native tongue. While floating in the womb, he distinguishes the rhythms of language from the honking of horns and the clamor of television, during Mom’s final weeks of commuting to her place of work. The filtered sounds entering through his mother’s abdomen form his first impressions of the language or dialects that he will speak perfectly in the coming years. He is already beginning to slice up the sounds into discrete chunks although the chunks, later to be recognizable words, represent absolutely nothing at this early point in his life. Indeed he does appreciate that they have value, yet he hasn’t the foggiest idea what the muffled sounds actually mean. These events are among several critical procedures that must occur in order to lay the foundations for all formal education to follow.

When a child hears the sounds of his local language, brain cells (neurons) begin to respond by regularly "firing" a consistent signal to precisely those brain cells responsible for processing sounds of that specific type. Millions of neurons were originally designated by the "blueprints" as brain cells responsible for processing the sounds of language. If these cells have not linked themselves with other neurons to process the important elements composing language, they will die. At this stage, language acquisition occurs without any formal instruction, which runs counter to conditions after puberty when the "window" for learning a foreign language begins to close.

However, at birth, every child has the innate capacity to master any of the 3,000 languages spoken on earth. He is also born with a universal grammar that gets fine-tuned by two areas. The first is responsible for understanding (processing) language, known as Weirnecke’s Area, located in the temporal lobe. The second controls language production, referred to as Broca’s Area, and is stationed in the frontal lobe. Instead of being pre-programmed to speak any one particular language or every dialect possible, the young cerebral cortex will focus its developmental activities around just the sounds that appear to have currency (as defined by regularity, and meaning) within his local environment. Words that have value will be indicated by the parents’ responses when he or utters a particular sequence of articulated "sounds," the elements of their local language. If that happens to be Korean, then Korean grammar, syntax, objects-before-verbs arrangements rather than objects-after-verbs, etc. will govern how his brain expresses ideas through language.

If the brain’s genetic program for language demanded that only a single language was permitted, it would severely limit the individual’s ability to navigate linguistically beyond the narrow confines of his immediate environment. Conversely, if the human brain were pre-programmed to speak every language on earth, its capacity for developing other vitally important talents would be drastically minimized. This high degree of environmentally-sponsored flexibility in the brain ("plasticity") gives the brain its limitless power to learn languages, or to adapt to an unlimited number of different cultures and experiences. At this stage, language acquisition occurs without any formal instruction, which runs counter to conditions after puberty when the "window" for learning a foreign language begins to close.
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