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Babies' hearing important in language deficiency

During the first year of life, babies adapt to the language they hear around them. In the event of hearing difficulties, this can lead to a language deficiency, which is not so easy to resolve, says Professor of English Linguistics Janet Grijzenhout. Inaugural lecture 19 March.

Babies already start to learn language while still in the womb

Babies start to learn the sounds that make up their mother tongue at a very early stage - even while they are still in the womb. 'By the twentieth week of development, the auditory bone has already been formed and in the 28th week the foetus can distinguish high and low tones and is becoming sensitive to the rhythm of their mother's language,' Grijzenhout explains. 

Turkish ears

Many children speak a different language at home from at school. Turkish children, for example, who are brought up with a single language and hear only Turkish at home. From the age of three, they come into contact with a second language that they hear for only a couple of hours a day at playschool. ‘These children learn their first words in the second language relatively quickly and you would almost think that they master the language of the environment really rapidly. But I'm not convinced that that's the case,' says  Grijzenhout. In the first year of life, a baby's hearing adapts to the language it hears in its surroundings. When Turkish children start to learn Dutch at the age of three, they hear the language with ears that are attuned to the Turkish language. A Turkish child will, for example, hear the word pear as bear. This 'misunderstanding' is persistent and it takes a couple of years to overcome it. It is still very much present when the child learns to read and write. These children are at risk of falling behind their classmates in terms of language. 


As professor of English Linguistics, Grijzenhout is curious about the effects of 'English as a second language' on a person's native language, but also about the effects of other mother languages on modern English. 'I am not so much interested in the age at which language knowledge is acquired, changes or is even lost, but why it occurs at that particular stage. What I am curious about is the question of which characteristics of speech are stable and resistant to change and which can change, and under what circumstances.'  Grijzenhout is also exploring the question of which characteristics of speech remain stable during the history of a language community and which are subject to change. 

Acquiring a second language is difficult

An important observation made by Grijzenhout is that the more grammatical information a spoken language communication comprises, the faster children acquire this information. 'German children learn to use the correct form of the definite article easily and at a very early age, while these rules are particularly difficult for adult second language learners to fathom.' On the other hand, Dutch children do not learn the correct form of the article in their language as rapidly as their German counterparts. Grijzenhout: ‘And it goes even more slowly with children who  are learning not only Dutch but also another language at the same time.' 

Conjugating verbs at the age of two

‘A child learning a language is looking for structure,' Grijzenhout explains. She illustrates this using the example of how Italian and English speaking children learn how to conjugate verbs in their native language. 'Contrary to what we linguists would like to believe, children do not learn to conjugate verbs at the same age in all parts of the world. Italian children can conjugate correctly at roughly the age of two, while English children take a year longer.' This is quite remarkable if you consider that the English verb system is much simpler than the Italian system; the Italian system is much harder to learn at a later age. 

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