Specialized Hearing Capabilities
Infants are born with specialized hearing capabilities that facilitate their ability to learn to speak. These capabilities focus on the capturing of the individual sounds that make up words. These sounds are called 'phonemes.' A phoneme is defined as the smallest unit of sound making up spoken language. There are approximately 400 phonemes in world languages; English uses about 44 of these. The smallest number of phonemes in a language is 11, and the most is 112.
Phonemes are the Building Blocks of Spoken Language
Phonemes are used to build words like bricks are used to build houses. You can say them in various combinations and form a very large number of words (English has the most words of any language, about 250,000). Our infant phoneme capturing skills have a time limit on them called a critical period. If we are not exposed to phonemes prior to 1 year of age we can permanently lose the ability to hear some phonemes. For example, the author of this page (James Royer) has experienced not being able to hear the differences in distinctly different words (distinct to the native speaker) in both Chinese and an African language called Hausa. Our ability to capture and hear phonemes deteriorates over time even with phonemes that are within our range of acquisition beyond age 1. This is the reason that acquisition of a second language with excellent accent is increasingly difficult beyond age 18.
Phonemes and Written Language
Phoneme capture not only provides the building blocks for speech, it is also vitally important in learning to read. Written languages are designed to capture the sounds of speech in graphic form. In alphabetic languages such as English, the building block role of phonemes in both speech and writing is obvious. Children who go through the phoneme capture stage of development with no difficulties have the beginning foundation they need to learn to read.
Problems with Phoneme Capture
Most children acquire the phonemic structure of their language with little difficulty. However, some children do have problems capturing phonemes, and difficulties with phoneme capture can produce difficulties in speech acquisition, difficulties in correctly pronouncing words (speech articulation problems), and ultimately, difficulties in learning to read. To learn more about why these difficulties are associated with phoneme capture, go to the dyslexia information section of this web site.