Can a toddler’s ability to start putting words together be a better indicator of later learning abilities than how many words they know?
An extensive new report commissioned by the Education Endowment Foundation, in partnership with Public Health England, seems to think so.
The report, which was compiled by a team of researchers led by professor James Law from Newcastle University, notes that between 7 and 14 percent of children struggle with language before school starts, which often hinders them in their later reading and writing abilities.
The findings also build on existing evidence that early language acquisition can be predictive of how people learn secondary languages later on. In other words: if you’re struggling to learn Spanish now, it could be linked to whatever made you struggle with your early language skills as a toddler.
In a 2015 study published in Translational Psychiatry, the study authors noted that early first language skills have been linked to second-language achievement, even after a 10-year gap. Second-language achievement at the age of 14 was also shown to be correlated phenotypically and genetically with first-language achievement scores.
In this latest iteration of their study, they found that most individual differences in second-language achievement were linked to genetic factors (versus school, family, and environmental influences), with achievement in English (the native language used in the study) and the second language being influenced largely by the same genes.
Keeping all of that in mind, it might be worth thinking back to your toddler years for signs of your current language-learning setbacks. Here are a few of the all-important indicators identified by Law and his team.
Indicators Of Delayed Language Acquisition
1. Vocalizing And Babbling
Infants generally begin to vocalize during their first 12 months, beginning with cooing and laughter at around 2 to 4 months; vocal play that sounds like squealing, yelling and growling around 4 to 7 months; and babbling at around 7 months.
Babbling in particular is a strong predictor of later language skills, and children who babble early also tend to begin speaking early. The study authors cite The Hanen Centre’s recommendation to consult a practitioner if a child doesn’t babble with changes in loudness and emotional tone by 12 months.
2. Gestures And Focus
Early gesture use is also an important indicator of later ability. Babies generally start using gestures to communicate around 7 months by following the gestures of others and pointing with eye gaze. At around 10 months, babies begin holding up objects to create a focus of shared attention. Pointing with the index finger is a major milestone for development, and it typically emerges around 12 months (or between 7 and 15 months generally).
Frequent “showing and giving” can predict the later ability to point, and early pointing gestures tend to indicate earlier language development and a greater range of vocab at 18 months. According to the Hanen Centre, it’s a good idea to consult a practitioner if a child doesn’t use simple gestures by 12 months.
3. Word Combination
Toddlers generally need to know between 50 and 100 words in order to start putting them together, but the ability to combine words can actually be a better predictor of later abilities than the number of words they use (so, quality over quantity).
According to the Hanen Centre, children should understand simple commands like “don’t touch” by 18 months, and be able to consistently join two words together by 24 months.
4. Sentence Structure
Most children begin producing longer, more complex sentences between the ages of 2 and 3. These include pronouns, auxiliary verbs like “can,” “will” and “might,” and articles like “a” and “the.”
5. Vocabulary Skills
Vocab does begin to matter at a certain age. If a child starts school with low vocabulary skills, it can have a long-lasting effect on their literacy levels (up to age 34!), as well as their mental health and employability.