- Children's Books, Brain Development and Language Acquisition by Ralf Thiede
The sober title of this book fails to do justice to both the originality of Ralf Thiede's contribution and the extraordinary range of relevant research on which it is based. The title of his introduction ("A Book with Too Many Variables") offers a more accurate, if unnecessarily apologetic, impression. Certainly, there may be "too many variables" considered here if you are an average scholar of psychology or language acquisition. There is also "too much" hard research evidence for the average children's literature expert to take in without considerable mental effort. But it is precisely Thiede's ability to conduct fruitful forays across disciplinary boundaries that makes this book well worth that effort.
Instead of repeating statements such as "Good children's books stretch a child's imagination" or "Children's literature provides rich language which enhances a child's delight in words," Thiede erects a detailed, convincing case for the unique importance of children's literature, especially during the years in which children are still acquiring language competency and reading is still mediated by a close, trusting child-adult relationship. His argument traces the way that language and thinking develop interdependently and interactively, and is based on current research into phonetics, morphology, syntax, semantics, and narratology. Thiede's own delight in words is constantly in evidence, lending a light touch to weighty intellectual debates—though just occasionally the cleverness obfuscates instead of illuminating. My own knowledge of linguistics is forty years old (Chomsky's Syntactic Structures was new then), and I have rarely revisited it. I was out of my depth for much of the chapters on "Delightful Sounds (Phonetics to Phonology)," "Morphemes a-Morphing," and "Interfacing Language and Cognition." The strong right-hemisphere bias of my own cognitive style made the mass [End Page 451] of left-hemisphere distinctions and abstractions in these chapters hard going, yet I was constantly delighted to find references that supported, or called into question, aspects of my own work (Crago 2014). My copy of Thiede's book is full of underscorings and marginal notes—always a good sign!
In the chapter on story structure ("Becoming homo narrans") I was on firmer ground, and in "Entrainment through Story" I immediately recognized the phenomenon that Thiede was talking about. When a trusted adult engages in close dialogue with a child via a shared book experience, the two may actually synchronize their breathing, emotional states, and brain waves, leading to a level of receptivity in the child that is quite different (as Thiede emphasizes) from what can be attained via the viewing of unmediated narratives on screens. As a therapist familiar with Attachment Theory, I know this phenomenon as "attunement" (not identical with "entrainment" but definitely overlapping with it). Recent neurological research (e.g., Schore 2019) has abundantly vindicated long-standing clinical wisdom: a therapist's (or a parent's) deep listening (to body states as well as to words), coupled with slow, sensitive responding, results in "right brain-to-right brain communication"—some-thing very close to the "mindspeaking" of science fiction.
Reading Thiede's summary of the research into how children learn to speak, I was struck by the power of selectivity. Right from the word "go," a baby's brain starts to sort out what it perceives as significant, and to discard what is not. Just as a baby prefers its mother's voice (and smell, and later, face) to those of other adult females, so those babies who have been exposed prior to birth to their mother's voice reading a particular text over and over will, as neonates, immediately prefer that text to other texts (28–29). Later, our brains "prune" millions of unused neuronal connections, discarding whatever has not yet been sufficiently used during the critical periods for language development. Toddlers' "first words are prototypes: they seed semantic categories and attract other words to build lexical fields" (62). Thiede's discussion of the interplay between the familiar and the unfamiliar, between Piaget's "assimilation" and "accommodation" (in...