Communication and Language Acquisition and Development

Julie Yingling. Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. Editor: Stephen W Littlejohn & Karen A Foss. Sage Publications. 2009.

Relationships among communication, language acquisition, and development are deeply involved in what makes us human. While speech scientists and psycholinguists have examined language acquisition, and cognitive psychologists have tied language to developmental issues, most communication scholars have shied away from the question, what exactly does communication have to do with language acquisition and development?

Definitions of Terms and Links among Them

One of the first scholars of communication to consider the links among communication, language, and development was Frank Dance. This entry will start with the definitions he began to use early in the 1970s. Communication, in its simplest sense, is acting on information. Human communication is the way humans act on information to communicate by means of spoken language and its derivatives (e.g., writing, symbolic gestures). Human language is the systematization of symbols, which is syntactic and culturally determined. According to Frank Dance, yet one other definition is critical in providing the developmental piece. Speech is the human, genetically determined, species-specific activity consisting of the voluntary production of phonated, articulated sound through the interaction and coordination of physiological and neural systems.

For Dance, the human capacity for speech is what leads to the inception of the symbol and, further, to the development of human conceptualization. In his view, it is our human speech-making capacity that provides the connections among communication, language, and development. Indeed, cognitive psychologists from Lev Vygotsky through Alexander Luria and Philip Lieberman have agreed with the broad outlines of such a connection. Frank Dance posited more specifically, for the communication field, that when human language is acquired normally, it is spoken, and that the development of spoken language leads to the constitution and effects of specifically human communication.

These kinds of theoretical statements stood out as novelties when they first appeared in the 1970s and early 1980s. Today they are not as controversial, yet neither have they become mainstream. Despite deeper examinations of communication development, we have been unable to either definitively prove or disprove the causality from speech to symbol to human communication effects, but the support is compelling. We look now to the work on these matters that has come to us from other disciplines, then to the current state of thought.

Contributions across Disciplines

Among the first to systematically link verbal communication with development was the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky in the 1920s. He had read Jean Piaget’s work of the same era about egocentric thought and speech and found something missing. Piaget claimed that the young child (younger than 7 years) thought and spoke egocentrically, and only later were thought and speech socialized. Egocentric speech is language that is not adapted for the listener’s needs whereas socialized speech is. For example, a 3-year-old is likely to say exactly what is on his or her mind: “I want a cookie.” An 8-year-old, however, is more likely to take into account the demands of the situation (e.g., it’s near dinner time, Mom is cooking vegetables) and say, for example, “If you let me have a cookie, I’ll eat my broccoli.” Piaget reasoned that we say what our thought tells us to say; a young child thinks egocentrically and therefore speaks egocentrically. As the brain develops, the child is more capable of more complex, socialized thought.

Vygotsky undertook his own studies of egocentric speech. He made the children’s tasks more difficult, and as he did, the amount of egocentric speech increased. He reasoned that the children were using speech to figure out problems—that speech indeed helped the child construct trains of thought, not the other way around. Consider this example: A boy, in creating a picture of his home, said, “Where’s the blue crayon? I need the blue crayon. Well, never mind, I’ll use green and wet it to make it darker.” Here, the child, who could not find his blue crayon, is instructing himself how to adapt to its loss and solve his problem. For Vygotsky, speech was the tool children use to create sophisticated cognitive processes. Note that Vygotsky does not attribute this power to language, which is a cultural acquisition, but to speech, which is a genetic endowment subsequently enriched by language. The ability to articulate sound so that the sound can stand for something—to create symbols—is what allows humans to reason in the way they do.

Vygotsky’s explanation made sense to many, including Piaget himself, as he admitted in a foreword to one of Vygotsky’s translated books. Others who noted and built on Vygotsky’s theory include Alexander Luria, another Russian psychologist, and Jerome Bruner, an influential American psychologist. The former is known for his sophisticated work on the making of the mind [p. 126 ↓]and the latter for providing the foundations of the interactionist school in developmental psychology.

Meanwhile, the discipline of linguistics was changing from the formal study of written language structure to considerations of the language-cognition connection and natural spoken language acquisition. The new cognitive linguists or psycholinguists were interested in questions regarding the role of language in thought and vice versa. Beginning in the late 1950s, Noam Chomsky, a brilliant scholar and lifelong activist, called for a new kind of grammar—transformational—to explain what really happens when we produce language. Chomsky attributed the child’s ability to produce grammatical sentences to a brain structure he named the language acquisition device (LAD). Again, as with Piaget, the focus is on the role of the mind (i.e., the LAD) in building social behavior rather than the role of social behavior in the development of mind.

When Jerome Bruner discovered the Soviet psychologists in the 1960s, he based his own observations of early child language on their principles. He may be the best known of the developmental school of social interactionists. He explained that human development could not be merely a matter of biological propensity or behavioral conditioning. He argued that Chomsky’s LAD would not be triggered without a corresponding language acquisition support system. More sophisticated and enculturated language users provide the scaffolding for a child’s construction of symbolic language.

Also concerned with the communicative part of the picture, Philip Lieberman, cognitive scientist and linguist, devised in the early 1970s a theory about the evolution of human language. By the early 1990s, he argued that Chomsky’s LAD, or an innate universal grammar structure, was biologically implausible if one examined principles of evolution. Instead, he proposed that children learn language similarly to the ways they learn everything else. The only difference is that they are uniquely equipped to produce and understand speech. Human speech allows us to communicate much faster than in any other mode and to articulate distinctive sounds, thus allowing us to combine sounds in a structured (grammatical) way. This ability to “chunk” bits of sound and attach meaning to them in combination permits us to overcome the ordinary limits of memory. By using sounds as symbols, we retain their meaning over time. The crux of the matter is the use of sounds for meaning: the symbol.

A symbol is one sort of stimulus that allows us to refer to something. In that sense, it shares the communication stage with signs. A sign is a stimulus that announces that thing to which it is intrinsically linked. The relationship between a sign and its referent is fixed and concrete; it will always mean the same thing. For example, smoke is a sign of fire and announces to perceiving animals that fire is near. Similarly, a baby’s hunger cry announces a hungry baby. And the species’ set response in the baby’s mother is the letdown of her milk. On the other hand, the relationship between a symbol and its referent is entirely arbitrary. In the example above, mother can choose to perceive her child’s cry symbolically in any number of ways. For example, even as her body responds to the child’s cry as a sign, her mind can be assigning meanings like “my child loves me” or “my baby is trying to make me crazy from lack of sleep.” We create the meanings for symbols, the capacity for which endows us with creative gifts like time shifting—the ability to imagine what will be in the future and to voluntarily consider what has happened in the past. Symbols give us the raw materials for a self-concept in particular and for concepts—complexes of meaning—in general. For example, if Sue is told when she is 3 that she is a girl and the apple of her daddy’s eye, that information constructs her idea of self. In preschool she adds pals to her life and so knows herself as a friend. Later, she excels at music, and she is a pianist. By adulthood, we cannot trace back all the sources of self-concept, but it is a pretty firm structure nonetheless.

Given that symbols are critical for developing other human characteristics and abilities, how do they arise? Apparently, the answer is that children grasp how to use speech sounds in a meaningful way with other humans in interaction. And it is here that the communication part of the equation links speech with interaction in development to result in language and logical thought. Contrary to Piaget’s view that cognition moved from egocentric to socialized thought, it is more likely that human thought develops from a spoken symbolic process worked out in the presence and with the assistance of others to a silent symbolic process worked out internally. Say that Ben has lost his mittens, yet [p. 127 ↓]again. As his mother is trying to run him out the door to kindergarten, he says, “But I can’t find my mittens, Mom!” She prompts, “Well, where did you last have them? Did you wear them yesterday after school?” He remembers; “Yes.” She continues, “Where were you playing? Who were you with?” He now recalls, “Jack was here. We made a snowman in the yard, and I needed a nose and took off my mittens.” And off Ben goes to the yard to find his mittens next to the snowman. Alexander Luria and others observed that this kind of learning to use symbols for thought is done with the assistance of more sophisticated thinkers, such as parents, teachers, and tutors. Human communication does not spring into being fully formed; it develops and changes over time. Those who understand this process of development and its dependence on interaction will be those who understand communication changes in the individual.

Communication Scholarship

The first direct treatment of developmental issues in the communication field was in the Frank Dance and Carl Larson text on speech communication in 1972. Ostensibly, it was a basic theory text but included a consideration of the uniqueness of speech communication behavior. Here were ideas from biology, semiotics, philosophy, and more. Further, they stated that the newborn infant is human only in form and potential; what confirms the infant’s humanity is the process of interaction with the human environment via symbolic communication. Dance and Larson go on to claim that symbolic communication leads to the development of human cognition. Here is where we see the influence of Lev Vygotsky on Frank Dance’s speech theory of human communication, formalized a decade later: The gradual internalization of speech communication mirrors the development of complex thought processes.

While Dance and Larson were basing their theory on the Russian theorists who viewed speech as primary, Jesse Delia and Daniel O’Keefe were founding their theory, constructivism, on the work of psychologist George Kelly, who actually had little to say about communication development but quite a lot to say about personality and personal constructs. A construct is a reference axis—or comparison point between two alternatives—created by a human for setting up a personal orientation to experienced events (including self and others). For example, an early construct might be a comparison point for people as either “nice” or “not nice.” One may create a meaning for “nice” only in the context of a meaning for “not nice”—some comparison point. Kelly posited that we devise frames for making sense of our experience in this way.

The constructivists, starting in the mid-1970s with Jesse Delia, Ruth Ann Clark, and Daniel O’Keefe, built a communication theory that uses cognitive complexity as a explanatory variable for communication behavior. To measure cognitive complexity, they counted the number of constructs—descriptive words—that an individual uses to describe others. Their research demonstrated that both complexity and persuasive skill progress with age. They concluded that the more constructs the child has available for distinguishing different kinds of people, the more capable the child is of adapting persuasive speech to influence various others. This sounds as if the child is constructing socialized speech. Notice that a Piagetian would say that cognition is now serving communication. However, a Vygotskian would instead reason that the child’s symbol system—developed in interaction with others—has become internalized and has begun to serve cognition. The constructivists have stayed out of this argument, for the most part, but have continued to use cognitive complexity as a primary variable that affects communication.

Others who studied constructivism, such as Brant Burleson, have moved on to study communication behaviors such as comforting while retaining the notion of cognitive complexity as a related necessity for the development of sophisticated comforting behaviors. Indeed, his recent work demonstrates that parents and peers who were skilled in comforting influenced the development of children’s comforting skills. Even more interesting is the finding that peers’ comforting skills were related to a child’s perspective-taking ability. Seemingly, interaction partners contribute a great deal to the child’s developing abilities for socialized thought and sophisticated communication skills.

So, interaction, human cognition, and language (spoken symbols) are interrelated. The order in development seems to be (a) interaction, (b) spoken language, and (c) human cognition. Certainly infants think, but their thinking is largely limited [p. 128 ↓]to present time and place until symbols serve to stretch their capacities. When spoken language and cognition merge (at about 18 months), a new form of thought begins—conceptual thought—on the basis of internalizing symbols. But it is the interaction with symbolizing others that provides the impetus for such development. Children do not learn to think humanly or to speak meaningfully in the absence of social interaction.

Despite their differences, most scholars of development are thorough social inter actionists; they believe that interaction is necessary to the development of both communication and language and that we must study interaction to tease out its effects. Thus, much of learning to be a competent communicator is a matter of the interaction we encounter and the sense we make of it.

Current Thought

Although studies about early childhood communication have burgeoned in recent years, complete theoretical treatments about communication/language/development relationships are still relatively rare in the communication field.

One worthy text, by Beth Haslett and Wendy Samter, appeared in 1997. Although they did not offer a communication theory per se in Children Communicating, they did frame nicely what we know about early childhood development of language and communication. They offer overviews of Piaget’s and Vygostky’s theories and then offer an alternative ecological approach articulated by developmental psychologist Michael Forrester. For Forrester, the most important social cognitive skill is the ability to understand and participate in conversation. He suggests that young children learn by “overhearing” interaction. Haslett and Samter are content to say that communication, language, and thought all interact and mutually influence each other.

In 2004, Julie Yingling offered a relational-dialogical perspective of development, extending it beyond infancy and childhood to the human life span. This approach, owing much to the developmental inter actionists and to dialectical theories of communication, rests on the notion that human thought and self-awareness emerge from the ability to use spoken symbols interactively. Mikhail Bakhtin, another Soviet scholar, suggested that consciousness lies on the border between the organism and the material world. Further, he claimed that the workings of each human are at such variance as to require the translation found in symbols. Here, at the boundary between self and other, dialogue is what creates meaning. Yingling uses dialogic processes to explain how human communicative development occurs—in a series of progressive internalizations of symbolic interactions or boundary experiences.

To explain fully the relationships among communication, language acquisition, and development calls for knowledge of each of these processes, including their physiological and neurological bases, as well as the influence of various interaction sources on the developing human. Much of that knowledge is available and has produced current theories that rely on symbolic interaction as an explanatory variable for many human effects. Refinement and adjustment of these theories is inevitable as relevant communication research continues to proliferate.