The World Most Powerful Learning Machine

The World Most Powerful Learning Machine

A BABY’S brain has been called “the most powerful learning machine” and for good reason. An infant enters the world primed to absorb all the sights, sounds, and sensations that surround him.

Above all, the infant is intrigued by other humans—their faces, their voices, their touch. The book Babyhood, by Penelope Leach, states: “Many studies have been made of the sights which interest an infant most, the sounds which attract and hold his attention, the sensations he most clearly seeks to repeat. All of these are most frequently and readily available in the form of an adult care-taking human being.” No wonder parents play such a vital role in the child’s development!

“I Spoke as an Infant”

Parents and pediatricians alike are astounded by a newborn’s ability to learn a language by merely listening to it. Researchers have found that within days, an infant is accustomed to his mother’s voice and prefers it over that of a stranger; within weeks, he can tell the difference between the speech sounds of his parents’ native tongue and those of other languages; and within months, he can sense the junctures between words and thus tell the difference between normal speech and unintelligible sounds.

How does an infant speak? Usually with an outpouring of incoherent babbling. Just noise? Hardly! In her book What’s Going On in There?—How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, Dr. Lise Eliot reminds us that the act of speaking is “an intricate motor task, requiring the rapid coordination of dozens of muscles controlling the lips, tongue, palate, and larynx.” She adds: “While babbling may seem to be just an enchanting way for babies to get attention, it also serves as a very important rehearsal for the complex gymnastics of speaking.”

Parents respond to their infant’s babbling with animated speech of their own, and this too serves a purpose. Exaggerated speech stimulates the infant to respond. This back-and-forth exchange teaches the infant the rudiments of conversation—a skill he will use for the rest of his life.

Shifting Roles

Parents of infants are kept quite busy responding to their newborn’s everyday needs. Baby cries, and someone is there to feed him. Baby cries, and someone is there to change him. Baby cries, and someone is there to hold him. Such pampering is appropriate and necessary.

In view of the above, it is only natural if a baby believes that he is at the center of the universe and that adults—in particular, parents—exist solely to do his bidding. That view is flawed but completely understandable. Remember, for more than a year, that has been the baby’s reality. In his view, he is the monarch of an empire populated by big people who were put here to serve him. Family counselor John Rosemond writes: “It takes just short of two years to create this fantastic impression; it takes at least sixteen more years to correct it! And that, paradoxically, is a parent’s job: cause his/her child to believe in this fantasy, then burst—albeit gently—the child’s bubble.”

At about age two, the bubble does indeed burst as a parent shifts roles from caretaker to instructor. Now the baby becomes aware that his parents are not following his lead; instead, he is being expected to follow theirs. The baby’s monarchy has been overthrown, and he may not take well to the new regime.

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