1 December 2012

Tanzania: Children Are Adept Learners

guest column

YOUNG babies are sociable from birth and use a variety of ways to gain attention from those around them. As babies develop mentally and physically, they use natural skills to make social contact.

As they advance in age children form friendships and can be caring towards each other. Children normally enjoy being with, playing with and talking to adults and other children. However, parents should not leave the duty of instilling intelligence into the child to nature.

Even wild animals equip their young with hunting skills, survival tactics and a form of "language." It is important to be close to our babies. Babies learn from such simple matters as eye contact, touch or voice.

You might end up raising abnormal human beings if you do not talk, touch or look at your infants. Babies should also be allowed to gurgle (talk) to adults or other young children. At around eleven months of age, an average child will start pronouncing simple words.

In a family of Kiswahili speakers the word "mama" (mother) often becomes first in the baby's vocabulary. Two syllable words, which are simple, such as "baba" (father) and "dada" (sister) often follow. Kiswahili words such as "mimi" (me); "Wewe" (you); "sisi" (us); "yeye" (him or her); "Bibi" (grandmother) and "kaka" (brother) appear to be tailored to suit young children. Among most tribal settings the trend is the same.

Babies often learn to call their mothers first - "mama." Among the Wasimbiti of Mara Region the vernacular word for mother is a twosyllable "mayo" and another two-syllable "tata" for father. Although some children appear to grasp language skills slowly it should be understood that learning is invariably a slow process - even among adults.

It is irrational to teach a child to pronounce words by mispronouncing them. For example, an adult will say, "oto" instead of "moto" (fire). Do not pronounce words the way a learning child does when you are teaching him. This delays his learning process and frustrates his mental capability.

Parents should help young children to learn the names of other children and important people in their lives. At the age of three years children with average intelligence should be able to identify people they know from a considerable distance, in dim light or even in pictures.

Show them the family album and challenge them to identify the people in the photos. As children begin to grasp the rudiments of language (any language) it is good to encourage them to have a simple conversation with parents, other adults and their friends.

When they have friends at home, you might like to encourage them to play a creative activity together. Young babies communicate as soon as they are born by crying. Gurgling, babbling, squealing, laughing and smiling soon follow. Most mothers speak to infants soon after birth - a highly symbolic gesture, indeed.

Babies enjoy experimenting, exploring and using sounds and words to represent objects around them. Young children use simple words, like "mama, bebe" (mother, pick me up) to convey their wishes. Children's language swiftly widens as they begin to use it to express their thoughts, tell their experiences and to share their feelings.

Eventually, they share ideas. At three years of age a competent child should be able to understand simple parental language and even run errands. So it is imperative for parents or other caregivers to speak or even smile at their babies and watch them smile back. It is important to respond to the many ways the youngest baby tries to reach you.

At around a year of age a child will even laugh if tickled or teased. Babies normally find it fun when parents interpret their sounds or echo them. It is also important that parents sing or talk to young babies and encourage them to talk back.

Babies are interesting humans. Parents can have great fun sharing with babies their discovery of new sounds and words. Whenever you show your child an object -- a toy-car, a pot or even a hen that is passing by -- point at the object and tell the child the name of that object.

"Kuku," (a hen) for example, is another two-syllable word. Three-syllable words such as "Kijiko" (spoon) and "kalamu" (pen) will soon follow. Sealed pots or plastic bottles filled with gravel produce fascinating sounds to imitate and talk about with young children.

Sights and sounds fascinate children. When walking around with a young child it is important to talk to him about the objects he sees around him - cars, trees, cows etc. An average child starts uttering the rudiments of language at the age of nine months.

He may pronounce single syllables such as "ma," "ba" and "da." Of course, he may also pronounce easier vowels such as "A" and "O." Difficult consonants such as "J," "V" and "Z" normally come last. At the age of three years children with average intelligence should be able to pronounce words that have tricky syllable combinations such as "ng'ombe" (cow), "mwalimu" (teacher) and "vyetu" (ours) which, sometimes, baffle some adults.

Beware that tongue twisters can confound even adults. I once challenged a workmate to pronounce the English word "antidisestablishmentarianism." The gentleman could not pronounce the word even after two days. Children grasp all local dialects, including the confounding Kisandawi.

Parents should try to give their children opportunities to talk with other children and other adults about what they see, hear, think or feel. Long before young babies can talk, they listen to, distinguish and respond to the tones of our voices. So, a baby responds to his mother's voice.

With those they know and trust, babies can understand and respond to the different things said to them. As they grow, children rapidly learn more new words and relish using them. Experience shows that singing rhymes with young babies can help them listen and even take part.

As children advance in age parents should introduce a range of stories, songs and games to them. Parents raising children in urban centres should expose their children to rhymes from their own cultures or other people's cultures and languages.

This helps the child to grasp cultural aspects. From the beginning of their life, babies convey messages about what they want and need and how they feel. Babies learn that their voices and actions have effects on others and they strive to share meanings. As they grow, young children use actions and words to make or justify choices. Children also try to influence the behaviour and responses of others.

As their vocabulary increases, children make sense of the world through bargaining, negotiating, questioning and describing. Parents might like to try to interpret the different messages children attempt to convey. Let children know that you understand what they are saying. You should act accordingly when they are hungry, tired, happy, sad or lonely.

Respond to babies' interests, such as their favourite toy, story or game and give them opportunities to make choices. Before ending this discussion, it would be remiss on my part not to point out here that it is unwise to teach very young children two languages at a time. Children can learn the second language when they are much older, say at the age of seven years. I wish everyone good parenting.

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