From the seventh month in utero, before a child is born, every word the mother says brings about a muscular esponse in the infant. A word is just a vibration of sound, and each vibration is called a phoneme. From the very beginning, there is this intimate connection between body, body movement, the brain and the forma- tion of word structures. By the time the child is born in the world, this muscular response is myelinated— locked in as a permanent pattern. For the first few months, what we call the in-arms-period, the eyes have it. Things aren’t auditory half so much as they are visual in those early months. Why? Because we couldn’t develop vision in utero. So the first few months, immediately after their birth, everything is visual to that child. They are looking, looking, looking, absorbing enormous amounts about their visual world. Around 6 to 12 months, they have what Jean Piaget called “object con- stancy.” He was wrong in his idea of what was happening, but he was right that it does take place. The child’s visual world simply, suddenly stabilizes. This is brought about by myelination of the axons involved in all sorts of other maturation processes. Somewhere around the first year of life, the sensory fields of the brain—the auditory and visual fields—stabilize
and mature enough so that this total entrainment locked in on the visual process is no longer needed. That’s when
we shift into the great limbic structure, and this emotional child appears. Language and walking appear.
Let’s look at the growth of language itself, and the relationship between word and thing. I love the work of
Blurton Jones, working with Nikolaas Tinbergen, the Nobel laureate, in the cross-cultural study of the pointing
syndrome. When a little child is in his own nest, he thinks anything is safe to interact with; he will just jump right
in on it. He wants to taste it, touch it, smell it, feel it and immediately say, “What is that, mama? What is that,
Daddy?” The child is asking for a name label for the object.
When you give him a name, the word and the thing build into the brain as a single neural pattern. The brain does
not build a neural network of the thing—its taste, touch, smell, feel and quality—and then, in addition, add to this
its name as though the name were a separate item. The name builds in as an integral part of the whole “structure
of knowledge,” as Piaget calls it. A structure of knowledge is a neural pattern that results from the child’s interaction
with an object or an event of his or her physical world. The brain responds to each experience by creating these
structures of knowledge. The name and the thing build as a single unit.
We call this “concrete language.” The word doesn’t stand for the thing; the word and the thing are the same to
the early child. Ask a 2-year-old child to say the word hand, and she’ll move her hand when she says it. Because hand
means something very tangible, something very concrete. Children at this early age can’t deal with abstractions.
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