How do children learn to understand and use language?
“In order to develop normally, a child requires progressively more complex joint activity with one or more adults who have an irrational emotional relationship with the child. Somebody’s got to be crazy about that kid. That’s number one. First, last, and always.” (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).
The uniquely human ability to understand and use language can only begin to be unraveled by the much larger and fascinating question of the child’s development as a human being. Although babies often begin to talk at about 12 months, it is what has happened in the child’s first year, day by day and moment by moment, that has seamlessly led to the child’s linguistic ability. From these many ordinary and yet absolutely critical ‘accomplishments,’ the child will come to understand what other people are saying and say what he is thinking. This brings us back to Billy who has not yet had that experience because of the challenges he came to the world with. His mother’s brave admission that she did not know what to do with him to help him is commonly felt by parents of children who are not easily engaged in interactions. The 1 month old, the 3 month old, the 6 month old, the 9 month old will incrementally build on his understanding of the world, and at the center of this growth, in fact the origins of it, will be the countless daily interactions the child experiences with his Mommy/Daddy/caregiver. When a child has challenges in the development of communication, language, and speech, our understanding of what typically happens in the first year of life will guide our discovery of the roots of each individual child’s problem.
To understand what may be standing in the way of the child’s ability to respond to others’ words and to talk, we return to the process of becoming a human being. We watch what happens between typically developing children and their caregivers, in fact we study and analyze this, so that we can identify what has preceded and led to the defining human ability – language. The research tells us that during parent-child interactions, very important interpersonal understandings are emerging. These interactive experiences are rooted in the caregiver’s repeated responses to the baby’s signals – signals which become moments of communication, then intention and meaning, and eventually lead to verbalizing feelings and thoughts. So if we were going to prioritize an intervention plan for Billy and his mother, we would look to that research and describe what typically happens between the caregiver and the baby in the first year of life. Then, we will try to recreate this way of being for Billy and his mother. Notice that we are referring to what the caretaker does and therefore the ‘goals’ that we will discuss later are specific to how the caretaker can ‘fine-tune’ her interactions, rather than tasks for the child to do. The child at this stage is not yet ready to ‘assume’ the responsibility of ‘learning’ in the traditional way, so more discrete goals (such as, point to pictures to demonstrate comprehension) are beyond his reach and capacity.
The most important moments that the baby will experience over and over again during his first year of life happen when his caretaker regulates and attunes to his physical and emotional states.
What might look like a simple interaction between a baby and his caregiver is actually a well-choreographed experience. The child and caregiver are looking for each other’s signals – a smile, a frown, a hiccup on the baby’s part – and many systems of communication are used to accomplish this. For example, baby smiles and moves his arms and legs. Mommy takes this to mean that the child is ‘saying’ he is happy and she might respond with something like – What a happy baby…. as she smiles, comes close to the baby’s face, and gently takes his hands and joins in his movement. This is the child’s first ‘language’ – body movements, facial expressions, gestures, voice, rhythm, eye gaze, etc. and when Mommy or Daddy respond to these forms of communication, the baby can be soothed, understood, or delighted in. And as important, the baby has had the experience of sending messages, having messages understood and responded to, and engaging in a powerful interpersonal moment. We want children who have challenges to experience this as well! We want someone to respond to the child’s movements, expressions, and vocalizations as messages being sent and received, so that the child lives moments of having a communicative impact on his caregiver. This will happen each time his caretakers tune into his ‘messages’ and attune to his physical and emotional states. Although it may be a stretch to call these sounds and movements the baby’s first ‘language,’ since in fact no words are used by the baby, nonetheless, messages are being sent; this is what language is all about. We communicate with the hope that someone will understand the meaning of our messages. The experience of having ‘communicated’ must be experienced over and over again to build the foundation for engagement, affective range, intentionality, and connectedness. When the adult tunes into the baby’s movements, and vocalizations, the baby comes to know that Mommy or Daddy is ‘reading’ how he is feeling. Obviously, a great deal of what the baby is communicating is done non-verbally, i.e., not with words but with the face, the body, the voice, the hands, the feet, etc. That’s where it begins and where we will begin with Billy.
In the first video, the notions that have been discussed so far really come to life. Here, Mommy is having an ‘intimate’ conversation with her baby, and first and foremost, we can see that she is ‘crazy about that baby.’ We notice how the mother repeatedly responds to the baby’s signals – vocalization, body movements, eye gaze, facial expressions, foot movements, etc. –launching the process and the pleasure of two-way communication. The baby is consistently sending messages and having those messages received. Notice the Mom’s tone of voice, the melody of her words, and the closeness of her body to the baby’s. The intensity as well as the intimacy of this interpersonal moment is what we want children with challenges to experience, so that they too can feel what it is like to ‘use what you’ve got’ to communicate and enjoy the delight in their caregiver’s eyes.
In the second video, the classic study done by Dr. Ed Tronick is illustrated. Here we see what happens when the baby does not receive the loving, warm, joyful mother that she expects. And of course, we are relieved to see the quick recovery the baby makes.
In the next video, we can see (even if we don’t understand!), how the dad’s (and Mom’s) interpretation of the baby’s ‘contributions’ to the conversation promote an ongoing dialogue between the two. It’s a bit difficult to tell who is mirroring who, but clearly, Daddy is treating the baby’s ‘turns’ as meaningful and communicative and his timing, rhythm, and body language contribute to the well-choreographed interaction. Imagine what the baby might be ‘learning’ in these moments and contrast that with what the child learns when we direct his attention to a ‘task.’ Without a doubt, the baby is learning something about the ‘pleasure of dialogue’ and deepening his connection to his father.
During typical development, the caretaker enjoys the baby, interprets what the baby is doing positively, and thinks of him as a baby and communication partner, not as a learner.
Billy’s mother thought she should be teaching Billy to do things – how to play with play-doh, how to pretend to make a hamburger, how to look at someone when he said good-bye. When a child is falling behind in development, parents naturally want to close the gap between where the child is and where he should be. This is completely understandable. The irony is by looking at the child in this way, he is missing out on the positive regard he needs from his caretakers for who he is right now and what he does right now. The child has to see a smiling, loving expression on his caregivers’ face more often than not, rather than a serious or tense one that comes when we are trying to get the child to do something that is difficult for him to do. Thinking from the child’s perspective, imagine what he is seeing in your facial expressions. This is the first language that your child will come to understand – your body language, gestures, facial expressions, and vocalizations. Of course, there is no question that you love your child, but if you are concerned with teaching him skills, he may sense a more directive ‘vibe’ from you, rather than an accepting, delighted one. How do we help the child and the parent when the process of becoming an intentional, meaning-making, communicative human being must be made explicit? Now, what is ordinarily spontaneous and natural will require ‘instruction’ and even, some counterintuitive thinking. Do we ask the parent to teach her child the things that other children his age know? Or do we identify the kinds of interactive experiences that occur repeatedly between a baby and his caregiver which spawn human development? Of course, the answer is the latter. We return to the beginnings of life, the science of human development, and suggest that despite the unconventionality of your child’s sensory, communicative, and interpersonal systems, your goal is to simulate the daily interpersonal experiences of infancy and early childhood, so that your child can be launched into the stages of humanity, communication, and language.
In the next video, the Mommy is playing a game with her child who is on the autism spectrum, as they take turns making sounds. Amir is experiencing the pleasure of his Mommy doing exactly what he would like her to do to amuse him and in those moments, Mommy and Amir are engaged and loving. Although Amir is 3 years old, Mommy is focusing on what has meaning to Amir and in the interactive experience, Amir is learning something about having his communicative intentions ‘read’ by the most important person in his life.
It is important to mention the disconnect between what we know from the science of child development and what is often prioritized in many of the less child-centered intervention programs for children at the beginning stages of communicative development. By saying this, we are making a strong statement about what to do and what not to do when the child is in the first stage of communication development. Again, this is regardless of the child’s chronological age. Here is where a great deal of the contemporary practices being implemented with children with significant challenges in language and communication is becoming derailed. In fact, Billy’s mother described the kinds of tasks she was encouraged to work on with him that were more oriented to ‘learning’ to do things (e.g., completing a puzzle) than learning to be part of a human interaction. Billy and his mother will have a chance to deepen the human bonds that are key to development only if they spend time doing the ‘right’ things, those that guide the child along on his journey to becoming a person.
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Gerber, S. and Prizant, B. (2001). A developmental approach to assessment and intervention with speech and language challenges.
In Clinical Practice Guidelines: Redefining the standards of care for infants, children, and families with special needs. MD: ICDL Press.
Hatkoff, A. (2007). You are my world: How a parent’s love shapes a baby’s mind. NY: Stewart, Tabori, and Chang.
Nelson, K. (2007). Young minds in social worlds. Cambridge: Harvard University.
Siegel, D. (2012). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. N.Y.: Guilford Press.