Science Behind Language Development

This is a transcript of the Preschool Podcast, episode #22 “Science Behind Language Development”.

Check all episodes of The Preschool Podcast


Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things early childhood education.

In this week’s episode we discuss the science of language development including the role of culture in dual language learning and the importance of linking language learning to real-life experiences. Our guest Karen Nemeth is an advocate for early childhood education and author on the topic of language development and operator of Language Castle that helps preschool programs provide better early education for dual-language learners. If you’re interested in learning more about how you can enable stronger language development – in particular with dual-language learners – then stay tuned for this week’s episode of the preschool podcast.

Karen, welcome to the Preschool Podcast. Thanks for coming on as a guest.

Karen NEMETH: Well thank you very much for having me. It’s always great to have an opportunity to talk about young children and what we do with them.

SPREEUWENBERG: Awesome. It’s our pleasure to have you. So Karen you’re passionate about improving outcomes for young children, especially those who are dual language learners. Why is that?

NEMETH: I started very early on being fascinated by how young children’s brains work and how language develops and how the brain figures out language and uses language. That is actually what I did my graduate work, my graduate research about. It’s about language development and brain development. Over time I took that from working in university to working in community organizations, nonprofits, so that I could get out there and work directly with teachers and families in the field. That had two benefits: partly I was fascinated by the science of how language develops.

But then I had all that experience interacting with individual children in different kinds of areas and different kinds of programs, and working with families and seeing what really happens outside of the science put out in the real world. It’s just really fostered my passion about what we know about how language developed and what can we do to support that language development out there day-by-day in homes, in libraries, in preschool programs, childcare programs etc.

Can you tell us a little bit about what is the science behind how language develops? Is there certain information you can tell us? For example that as an early childhood educator, by understanding a little bit about the science that might help me to be able to do some practical things in the classroom.
That’s a really important question because the science behind language development actually is critical to supporting the best teaching practice. Yet the science is not always the top focus of teacher education programs and teachers have a lot of questions. Sometimes they know what to do but they don’t always know why it works. And it’s the “why” that that really empowers teachers to do their best work.

Some important things we know about language development are that the human brain is prepared from the very beginning to be able to learn and more than one language, that learning in two languages or three languages is healthy for the brain. Sometimes adults we worry: “Isn’t that confusing to the children?” No, it’s not confusing to the children – it’s confusing to us as grown ups. So sometimes we put that on the children. “If it confuses me maybe it’s confusing to the children, too,” but that’s not really true. That’s something we have to deal with. But, for the children, their brains are ready to go and they can learn whatever language is put in front of them.

Supporting “first language, second language, home language, a new language” is really important right from the start of young children’s lives, and giving them all of that brain activity that helps. But another piece of the science about language development that is really becoming a topic of high attention lately is that language is not developing just because children hear language. Language develops because of the way children use language. We hear a lot of talk about talking to children and having a lot of words in the children’s environment and we don’t always pay enough attention to the science that shows oral language, the language that children practice. The babbling they do before they see words, their early words, the things they say to each other and the things they say to teachers in preschool actually is a very critical component not only of their language development but of their reading development later on. And it turns out that things like phonemic awareness and literacy skills and even writing skills depend on giving children lots of opportunities to do the talking. So one of the things we’re really working on is helping teachers to learn that to be a good teacher you have to talk less. It’s not all about filling the day with the teacher-talk. It’s about filling the day with responsive interactions back and forth in the classroom, and at home when children get lots of time to talk.

Interesting. I actually recall in a previous podcast we were speaking Julie Dosh about immigrant and refugee children. One of the things she said which resonates with what you said is that a mistake that’s often made is when the immigrant children come into the preschool program – let’s say there’s a focus on, “okay, we need to integrate them into our culture by teaching them English,” and the parents want that as well. But actually it’s super important to maintain and continue to use the native language.

She’s right. We should give her credit for saying it we will get right behind that statement. From a brain development point of view that is absolutely true. What we have to remember is that, for young children, research shows that their languages develop at separate systems. It’s not just all like a language department in their brain with all the languages together. That children actually learn things in different languages, and whatever they learn in one language is coded in their brain in that language. If they go fishing with their grandfather they learn words about fishing that they learned in the language their grandfather used. That’s how the brain knows those words. And if they do cooking with their grandmother they learn words about cooking in the language that their grandmother used. So that child may seem to be able to use two languages or three languages but those language systems are separate, and what they learn in one language is remember in that language until they get older and they can really transfer that information back and forth across languages in their brain.

When they’re young, if we don’t support what they know in their home language, it’s like cutting off their access to a whole world of prior knowledge that’s in their brain. We can’t help children learn if we don’t properly access all the prior language or the prior knowledge that they bring with them as they come programs. It’s important to acknowledge the home language but also to use that knowledge that the child has. All those assets that are built up in their brain in those different languages contribute to what they learn and how they grow in their new language.

And, as if that’s not enough, we have a whole new group of studies out recently that have shown the importance of helping children learn English by making explicit connections between words they know in their home language and making connections with the same words in their new language, in English. It’s knowing what they’ve done with their home language and being able to make those connections with their new language. That’s what works for the brain. Just layering on English that children don’t understand doesn’t really help them learn English, but connecting new words in English with things they already know helps their language to just grow and flourish. And that’s what helps them become better readers later on, helps them throughout their school years, by setting up a foundation.

You mentioned this point about, for example, a fishing trip with your grand father, and what language you’re using when you’re having that experience. Why is it important to link language learning to real life?

Children learn so much about language and about how language works and about what words mean and how to put words together and how to communicate and how to remember information with the words they’ve learned. They learn so much of that before they ever come to school. All the learning they do comes from experiences. And so as scientists have studied how the brain develops and processes language we’ve come to realize that separating language into separate skills is not the most effective way to support language development. The best way for children to learn language is in a more holistic, natural approach where they’re just playing with things or exploring things and having conversations about things. It’s language attached to meaning that that really sticks in the brain.

When you have young children try to just learn a list of words that they don’t understand you can make them practice those words but they won’t remember them. But if you help children learn new words that go along with the things they’re playing with or the things they’re exploring outdoors or the things they’re making with their art supplies, those words stick because they have meaning to the child in connection to their experiences and their interactions. It’s not just hands-on experiences, but it’s actually interactive conversations about those words.

If a child was working on a project like exploring plants in a school garden, for example, if the teacher just walked by and said words to the children while the children quietly planted plants those words would probably go right over their head and might not be remembered. But if the teacher stops and has a conversation with the children – using sophisticated words about planting and the seeds and the growth and the chlorophyll and whatever – by having conversations in that experience, that’s what makes the meanings of those words stick. That’s what builds children’s vocabulary, their understanding. That’s what helps children make connections between their first language and their second language, and again paves the pathway for success in school for many years to come.

What are some other ways that I can take what we’ve talked about in terms of the science behind language development and apply that in my classroom to help my children, especially those who are dual-language?
One easy way to do that is to find lots of ways to encourage children to talk to each other. Lots of wonderful conversations can happen between children. Teachers don’t always have to be in charge, and a teacher doesn’t even always have to understand what the children are saying. If your classroom is filled with lots of rich and interesting materials you can be pretty sure that when children are talking to each other they are using rich and interesting vocabulary, even if it’s a language you don’t understand. Giving children more opportunities to talk to each other is an easy way.

For example, in traditional preschool story time where the teacher is sitting in a big chair with a big book and all the children are looking at the teacher, in the old way teachers would ask questions of the children. But each time it was kind of like a quiz. The teacher would ask one child and a child would answer the teacher, and then the teacher would ask another child and the child answers a teacher. Well that’s not really a conversation; that’s more like a pop quiz. “What do you think the bear feels? What do you think the beer feels?” But we could change that by saying: “Talk to your friend about what you think those bears are going to do next.” And then with the teacher be quiet and let the conversations unfold. And that can really make a difference.

We also want to see teachers taking more time to just hang out with kids, to just sit and have individual and small-group conversations. And that’s true if you have a volunteer or family member that comes in the classroom that speaks th home languages of the children. That can be their role, to be a conversation partner, to sit down. Is the child playing in the pretend play area? Sit down and chat with them about it. Is a child trying to put a puzzle together? Sit down and hang out with them and try the puzzle yourself, and just talk back and forth about what’s hard and what’s easy and what worked and what the puzzle looks like. Building in those conversations and building in more people to help with those conversations, like volunteers and the children themselves, can really go a long way in changing the language outcomes for those children.

Because part of it is just a matter of time management. It’s always difficult, as any early time an educator knows, to have the time for that. I could see how having other people in the room to support you would be super helpful.

Right. But you have to prepare people. So on some program say: We invite family members to come and read stories to the children. Well, you know what? That’s not everybody’s talent. Not everybody is comfortable sitting in front of a group of squirming little children and reading stories to them in silly voices, that’s not everybody favorite thing. But if we can bring people in and say: “We don’t need you to be a teacher to the children. We just need you to be a conversation buddy and just talk with them about what they’re playing or what they’re doing.” But to do that you sometimes you have to sort of teach people what that really means. Like maybe show a video, or maybe the teacher can model it, so that volunteers or family members don’t feel like they have to hide their home language when they come in the classroom. You don’t want them to feel like they’re there for behavior management. You don’t want people to come in and feel like: ”I’m here to help the teacher by making the children sit still.” That’s not why we want our interesting volunteers and family members to come in. We want them to come in and enrich the classroom with their own thoughts and feelings, experiences, and their own talk and their own ability to respond to these children and get the children to talk, too.
So that preparing volunteers is preparing children. You have to sort of help them learn that it’s okay to talk to each other and that we don’t come to school to sit and listen to our teacher. We come to school to interact and learn have those experiences and talk to each other in real respectful ways. It takes some planning. Teachers who really need to sort of think about: “What do I want to communicate with all of the people who are going to be working with my children,” so that we can do a better job of

You mentioned earlier the critical importance of the science behind all of this. Taking a step away from the practical piece and going back to the science piece, where is that science coming from? Are there any hotbeds of research for language development in young children right now where, if I was very passionate or interested in this topic, I might go to find that?
Yes, there is a particular hotbed that is at the University of Washington – in the state of Washington, in the United States – that the University of Washington has a center called ILABS, the Institute For Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. There is a whole group of researchers there. The website is The well-known researcher there is Dr. Patricia Kuhl. She has a whole team of top-notch researchers and some very sophisticated equipment. They actually produced a TED talk, a video of one of Dr. Kuhl presentations where she actually demonstrates how they do their research, and how they are able to use brain scans of young babies as they’re learning language and understand which parts of the brain work and how that works. That’s a wonderful place to go to get not only how they got started but over time as they’ve continued to do more research specifically about how the brain learns in two different languages and what’s needed to make that work and what happens inside the brain as the child is learning two languages.

One of the things that they found repeatedly is the importance of interaction. The responsive social interaction with another human being is critical to learning language, that the brain doesn’t learn language as a skill. The brain learns language in the context of interactions, and
they’ve actually been able to use brain scans to show that. But there are other individual researchers throughout the United States and Canada like Ellen Bialystock and Fred Genesee, Lisa Lopez here in the United States, and Carol Hamer at Teachers College. Some new studies have been coming out. The United States Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services just released a policy statement about statement about supporting young dual-language learners in early childhood education programs that just was released in June of 2016. In that policy statement from the two federal departments coming together they cited all of this in recent research. Finding that joint policy statement and supporting young dual-language learners in the United States Department of Education and Health and Human Services is a great resource to get access to the newest and top research that they thought was important to include, and which gives them the basis for the recommendations they make which just so happened to fit the things we already talked about today as we’re having this conversation.

Very cool. And it’s interesting to hear that some of the findings at the University of Washington ILABS about language development are similar to a lot of the things that we’re learning about early childhood education generally, where the message is almost like: “Teachers, you can step back and let the children do more, play, interact on their own and with each other because that’s actually the way that they learn the most.”

I really love the way you said that, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m so passionate about my corner of the field, about supporting children are learning in two languages. Because I come to see over time that the more we learn about how children learn in two languages, the better informed we are about language development. And the strategies that research is showing us that work best with children who are learning in two languages turn out to be the best strategies for all young children. So, we can’t lose. If we’re pursuing a particular need, a growing need of diverse languages among young children, by meeting that need we can actually improve the whole field. There’s a lot of room for new researchers and new practitioners and new voices to advocate for supporting language diversity because it turns out that’s a great way to help all young children succeed.
Precisely. We’ve talked about a lot of exciting things, so maybe we’ve already covered this, but what’s exciting you most about what’s happening in early childhood education right now?
In the United States with that new federal policy statement, other policy statements have come out in the US this year as well where we’re starting to see that meeting the needs of children with diverse languages is becoming a focus. It used to be a sideline, or it used to be ignored. But now we’re seeing that in the United States Department of Education’s guidelines on using technology in early childhood, they have a special section about using technology with dual language learners. And different states are improving their policy statements.

We went through so many years where the issue of language diversity was treated as if it wasn’t important, or it wasn’t very big. And now everybody is scrambling to take credit for acknowledging, of being aware or being explicit about including children with diverse languages. We’ve sort of shifted into a new awareness and everybody wants to talk about dual-language learners. I’m very excited about the possibilities that that brings forward. And it’s an important connection between Canada and the United States, because, in some ways – the way certain areas of Canada have really celebrated learning in two languages and have in some ways been ahead of the United States – we can now start really being aware of what we need to learn from each other. And now we’re more open to exploring those possibilities and really changing the field, not just in our local area but it’s something that people are talking about now all over the world, and how we could come together, that could really be exciting.

For sure. Sharing the knowledge and learnings with each other across borders and across the world I think is definitely something that’s quite powerful, if we come together and do that. Now this is clearly a very important subject and I like the way you said how the learnings for improving children’s outcomes who are dual-language learners applies across the board for all kind of learning for young children, and that’s so true. I’m very excited about this topic. I’ve learned a lot in our conversation. If I’m a listener and I want to go and learn more or I want to connect with you, Karen, where would I go to find you online?
I tried to make myself findable online because I love having these conversations, and I love learning what’s happening in other parts of the field, and what individual teachers are doing, and what kinds of questions are out there. So I made my website, called, as a place where people can come to get information and to make comments, to share resources that they’re using. I use my website, and I also have to do a lot of interacting on Twitter as KarenNemethEDM . And I have a Facebook page: Karen Nemeth at the Language Castle, and I have a LinkedIn group called ELLs-DLL’s In Early Childhood.

I try to be in different places where people are talking about these questions and these issues. I go across different aspects of the field. I participate in early childhood education organizations and bilingual education organizations, and the Library Association, the National Head Start Association, the Teachers of English of Speakers of Other Languages organizations, and collect information from each part of the field and then share it with all of the professionals who need to know about it and so. That’s why my social media contacts are important, and you can find out about all that, you can link to any of that, by coming to my website at


This has been a really great session. Enabling early childhood educators to apply research in science-based concepts in the classroom I feel is über-important to that early childhood profession. So thanks so much for your work, Karen, and thanks so much for coming on the show.

Thank you for having me.

Ron Spreeuwenberg

Ron is the Co-Founder & CEO of HiMama, where he leads all aspects of a social purpose business that helps early childhood educators improve learning outcomes for children.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *