It is a commonplace of child psychology that, during the early years, there is a phase of especial facility in language acquisition, a phase that is never repeated. As everyone always says, look how easily toddlers learn to speak the English language without any formal teaching. This is also commonly used as evidence for Montessori’s concept of sensitive periods. However, some research is beginning to call this view into question. Ellen Bialystok of York University, Toronto, (Hakuta, K. et al (2003). Critical evidence :A test of the critical-period hypothesis for second-language acquisition. Psychological Science 14(1); 31-38.) mindful of the dramatic research into how the brain can change itself (plasticity), turned, back in 2003, to US census linguistic records from 1900 and particularly records of the linguistic abilities of some 2.3 million immigrants with a Chinese or Hispanic background. In measures of language attainment, you would expect a sharp discontinuity between those who immigrated before the age of two and those who immigrated later. In fact there was no such marked difference. There were gradual differences for educational attainment and age generally, but no sharp cut-off. And when you think about it, if you were suddenly placed in a foreign culture and left for three years with nothing to do but interact socially; would you not achieve a great deal of language in three years?
In all fairness, it has to be said that not all research confirms this. In a long-term study of the effects of institutional ‘care’ on Romanian orphans, Charles Nelson (Nelson, C.A.III (2007). Cognitive Recovery in Socially Deprived Young Children; the Bucharest early intervention project. Science 318; 1937-1940) did show that children fostered out of the institutions before the age of 2 years had dramatically better life chances, including language skills, than those moved later or not at all. Nelson specifically calls this a ‘sensitive period’. He suggested it was closely linked to the children being able to form strong attachments. Montessori, of course, never claimed that sensitive periods, if missed, were irretrievable (that is the definition of a critical period) but that was much more difficult later.
It is also often assumed that the child-like way of just absorbing knowledge to learn is lost in later life. Again, some research suggests this may not be the whole story. Professor Gabrielle Wulf of the University of Nevada (Wulf, G., et al. (2012). Altering mindset can enhance motor learning in older adults. Psychology and Aging, 27, 14-21.) has demonstrated that if you focus on the action (like a child) rather than thinking about it, your learning improves. She has described other techniques in her 2007 book Attention and Motor Skills Learning published by Human Kinetics in Illinois. Adults too often agonise over how to do a task rather than just throwing themselves into it, like a child would.
Another ‘accepted fact’ about early childhood language is that they have no grammatical competence or understanding grammar until around the age of five or so. However Dr Christina Dye, whilst at Cornell (Dye, C.D. (2011). Reduced auxiliaries in early child language; Converging observational and experimental evidence from French1. Journal of Linguistics 47(2); 301-339.), studied hundreds of recordings from 50 toddlers learning French. She found that a lot of grammatical words, particularly articles and verbs were represented by little puffs of air. She commented “The fact that this sound was always produced in the correct place in the sentence leads us to believe that young children are knowledgeable of grammatical words. They are far more sophisticated in their grammatical competence than we ever understood. I believe we should give toddlers more credit – they’re much more amazing than we realised.”
Clearly children have much greater ability to use grammar than has been assumed. On the same theme, it has always been assumed that the very young have no insight into people’s perception of the world. This assumption is the basis of Piaget’s concept of egocentricity. But a recent study at the Institute for Psychology in Budapest (Kovacs, A. et al. (2012). The social sense: Susceptibility to others’ beliefs in human infants and adults. Science 330; 1830-1834.) has shown that, as early as 7 months, babies dis[play an awareness of adults’ perceptions (using the now-established method of measuring babies’ attention span as an indicator of surprise.) This is yet another example of the fact that children’s abilities are so much greater than was assumed.
Some children, infant prodigies, have vastly greater abilities than the average. But the point being made here is that all children have vastly greater abilities than is usually supposed. This is also true for a minority of children with autism who display enormous talents, albeit often in a limited sphere. One could mention Stephen Wiltshire (who has an MBE for services to the art world), who, in 2005 after a 20-minute helicopter ride, drew an accurate 10-metre cityscape of the Hong Kong skyline. Stephen is also a talented musician, once surprising his friends at an informal concert by singing Carmen pitch-perfect – he had picked it up off the television. One could mention Daniel Tammet, who recited the decimal numbers of p to 22,000 places at the Oxford Museum of the History of Science, a feat which took him 5 hours & 9 minutes. He famously learned the Icelandic language in a week for a Channel 4 programme, and has written a book about his experiences, Born on a Blue Day. And there are many other examples of savant syndrome that could be quoted.
The neural mechanism underlying these unusual talents is a mystery. But what is less well-known is that some ‘normal’ adults have suddenly acquired similar abilities. Dr. Anthony Cicoria, an orthopaedic specialist living in New York, was struck by lightning in 1994. Apart from burns and some short-term memory loss, he suffered no immediate ill effects. But then he became consumed with an interest in the piano and within 3 months was an accomplished concert pianist and composer. His story featured in neurologist Oliver Sachs’ book Musicophilia: Tales of Music And the Brain. Another example, reported in the Daily Telegraph in December 2012, is that of 81-year old Alun Morgan who awoke from a 3-week coma, after a stroke, speaking Welsh. This was despite his never having formally learnt it (he had lived in Wales for a time as a boy) and his not being aware of what he was doing. Again there are many examples of such anomalies.
The Royal Society in London held a symposium on ‘Autism and Talent’ in 2009. Dr Daniel Treffert, of the University of Wisconsin Medical School, summarised the known facts (Trefford, D,A. (2009). Ther savant syndrome; an extraordinary condition. A synopsis; past, present future. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B. 364; 1351-1357.) Further information can be accessed from the Wisconsin Medical Society Foundation’s website www.savantsyndrome.com, including some video clips. Savantism is commonest with autists, but not exclusively so, and some 10% have some signs of the condition. There is a spectrum of savant skills but all of them have prodigious memories. But perhaps the most significant aspect of savantism is the tantalising glimpse it gives us of the possibility that we all have these skills, locked away inside us. At the same symposium Allan Snyder from the University of Sydney argued (Snyder, A. (2009). Explaining and inducing savant skills; priviledged access to lower level, less processed information. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B. 364; 1399-1405.) that very point, quoting his research showing that artificially inhibiting the left anterior temporal lobe of the brain can artificially induce some savant-like skills. Snyder suggests that the reason we cannot normally access these skills is that our mindsets, which embody the familiar features of our everyday world, inhibit these skills in the interests of being able to rapidly negotiate the complexities of social life – skills which autists and many geniuses find difficult.
Whatever the theoretical background, the point from all these pieces of research, savantism, language acquisition and enhanced learning, is that people, children and adults, are remarkable – more remarkable than was generally realised. So next time you are dealing with a ‘difficult’ child, just remember that inside they are quite marvellous.
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