How shopping for pants is like learning to talk

Let’s say you go to the department store to buy a pair of pants.  There are hundreds of pairs in the store, but you don’t look at all of them.  First you narrow the search by male, female, teen or child.  Next you decide if you want dress or jean or work pants and finally you find your size.  You’ll bring those pants home and put them in your closet with the other pants that fit you.

Now think of the language part of a baby’s brain as a big department store. A baby can chose from 6000 phonemes (sounds) when it babbles.  That’s a lot of sounds to sort through to understand speech.  Imagine if you had to sort through 6000 pairs of pants each day to find a pair to wear. So between 6 and 12 months babies start to discard the sounds they don’t need; the ones they don’t hear in their native language.  So in their “brain closet” they keep the important sounds of their language and their variations.

Each language has distinct sounds. The number of phonemes varies.  The English language has 44 phonemes, while French and Spanish have around 30 sounds.  When the brain discards the sounds that aren’t used it can devote more brain power to quickly recognizing the variations of that language’s sounds.

Suppose that shopping trip was with a friend and a week later you said to them, “where did you get those pants?”  And they said, “with you when we went to the store, remember?”  But you don’t.  You only remember the pants you put in your closet.  Now you want those pants too, so you go back to the store.  But you can’t find them, so you ask the clerk for help.  The clerk may  find them on a different rack or in clearance or order them for you from another store.

It’s the same with those sounds you discarded as a baby.  You can find them again, but it takes work.  It takes training your ears to hear them and your mouth to say them.  A speech therapist can be that “store clerk”.  We can help you hang new sounds in your “brain closet” so you can be easily understood when you speak English as a second language.


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