The Laws of Brainjo, Episode 10
The Timeline of Mastery (and the roots of improvisation)
Vowel sounds…..3 months
Monosyllabic words (“mama”)….. 9 months
First words….12 months
2-3 word phrases….24 months
Uses tone of voice to add additional meaning…3 years
Carries clear conversations with well developed grammar and articulation…..4 years
Fluent, improvisational speech….5-6 years
If you’re a parent, you probably recognize the above chart. These are the language milestones of childhood, the stages through which a developing child moves on their way to achieving fluency in his or her native tongue.
Embedded in this chart are two very important messages that most of us know to be true, even if we’ve never really given it much thought before:
1. Virtually every child moves through the sequence (and exceptions warrant investigations into nervous system disease or dysfunction) and reaches the end goal of fluency, or “improvisational speech.” In other words, like you, the child is able to effortlessly and nearly instantaneously translate thoughts in their mind into a motor program for the vocal cords, in effect turning thoughts into speech in realtime.
2. Every child follows this exact same sequence.
I’ve said before that there’s no better template than the language learning model when it comes to learning music (though I’d argue it’s the ideal template for learning anything).
Fundamentally, our ultimate goal when learning to speak and learning to play an instrument is the same: to turn thoughts into movement. In the case of language, we’re translating concepts or ideas into the movement of the vocal cords. In the case of an instrument, we’re translating musical ideas into movement of the limbs.
But there’s one big glaring difference between language learning and musical instrument learning….
The failure rate!
Whereas the failure rate for language is extraordinarily small, the failure rate for learning an instrument is extraordinarily high. Especially when you compare the two.
What’s even more remarkable about this discrepancy is that the ability to speak fluently is, if anything, more cognitively sophisticated a task than playing a musical instrument.
So why the difference?
A FOOLPROOF SCRIPT
Clearly, there is a component to language development that is hardwired in us from the get go. Parents know that their children learn their native tongue not through some formal curriculum they’ve dreamt up, but almost entirely on their own. You just bring your kid out in the world, sit back and watch as magical things happen inside their noggins over the next few years, and then one day they’re talking back to you!
In this respect we can acknowledge that we’re clearly wired up for this language business at birth. Language has been so critical to our success as a species that our DNA has ensured that we get it right, and so we have neural machinery right out of the gate that helps us do so.
Yet, there are several thousand languages throughout the world, and our DNA doesn’t know at conception whether our language will be Spanish or Swahili. The specific language can’t be hardwired by the time we draw our first breath. Rather, it must be learned.
So how has our DNA/brain solved this problem of ensuring that every human learns to speak?
By hardwiring the learning process.
And not just any learning process. A learning process that, in the absence of disease or deliberate attempts to derail it (i.e. depriving a child of sound), is foolproof.
This is what the developmental milestones are telling us. Every child passes through the same milestones in the same order because each step, and the order in which the child moves through them, is absolutely critical to their ultimate success. In a poly-lingual world, this is how the brain ensures that each human reaches fluency.
What’s more, it’s assumed that every healthy child will move through this process and become an effective speaker. There’s no anxiety about whether or not he or she is gifted enough to learn to do it. It’s just a matter of building up one component skill sufficiently, then moving to the next. While the end result is extraordinary, the process itself is matter-of-fact.
And there’s no real urge to rush the process. We know it doesn’t make sense to start teaching a 6 month how to write poetry in iambic pentameter, nor to become discouraged if he or she can’t carry on a conversation on the finer points of securities trading in overseas markets at the age of 1.
A MATTER OF TIME
The most wonderful thing about the human brain is that this capacity to learn, to remold itself in response to environmental demands, remains throughout its life. And this, of course, includes its capacity to learn music.
The only difference is that, unlike in language learning, the script isn’t hard wired. But the principle remains: follow the right path, and success is virtually inevitable. And there’s no skipping ahead, no rushing to the advanced material before the early stuff has been mastered.
Just as every language speaking human passed through the same language milestones, you’ll find the same to be true of musical masters. Though the speed with which they did so may have varied (since the learning script is not hardwired), they all passed through the same sequence in their own pursuit of mastery.
So at this moment eradicate all talk of “bad” and “good” players, musically talented or not, etc. These concepts are useless at best, destructive at worst.
The difference between someone who can play through two tunes at 60 BPM and a master who can play freely in a jam has nothing doing with these sorts of things. It simply has to do with where they currently are on the timeline of musical mastery. One is further along, but the journey can be had by anyone who chooses to walk down the path.
Is the typical 4-year-old child a more talented talker than a babbling infant? Of course not. That’s just outright silly. One is just further along in the timeline of language mastery.
In future episodes, we’ll explore the concept of the timeline of musical mastery in more depth, using the language model as a guide for developing our own set of developmental milestones.
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