Communication at any age requires a skill set including the obvious such as a proper vocabulary and grammatical accuracy. For a child, a conversation is far more difficult because vocabulary and grammar are not the only things that are still developing. The five years leading up to this communicative breakthrough also depends on the phonological and social development of the child.
Component 1: Phonological Development
Firstly, the quintessential ingredient to verbal speech of any kind is phonological development. When infants are born they all have the ability to perceive the sounds and tones used in all languages. Experience with their own language over the first year of their life, slowly allows them to tune into the phonemic contrasts between their own language over others (Smith et al. 2011). For example, when a Japanese baby is 8 months old, they can distinguish /r/ and /l/ sounds; however, by the time they are one, they no longer can (Purves, 2001).
This may not seem like a useful skill; however, it is necessary for an infant to become an expert at their own mothertongue. Adults play a quintessential role by building on the biological rhythm of their babies developing speech. By 10 months, the canonical babbling comes to reflect the prosody of their surrounding language of their parents (De Boysson-Bardies, 1993). Clearly when infants are this young, it is essential for close proximity between caregiver and infant. Characteristics of contingent talk such as exaggerated facial expressions, repetition and eye-contact ensure optimal attention. Without this attention, the infant would not gain the benefits of contingent talk and their vocabulary acquisition would suffer.
Component 2: Acquisition of Vocabulary
Hand in hand with phonological development is the acquisition of vocabulary. The first step of any child’s vocabulary acquisition is contingent talk. Contingent talk is when a caregivers ‘scaffolds’ learning by talking about what the infants is already attending to (Carpenter et al. 1998). Various forms exist including child-direct speech, following in, expansion and clarification and all of these forms help co-regulate intentions (Fogel, 1993). In other words, both the child and the caregiver work together to improve the language of the child. As the name suggests, scaffolding language allows the caregiver to just teach their child new words, but also to improve the quality of their word choice and the coherence between words.
Furthermore, contingent talk is instrumental in the development of theory of mind (Astington & Baird, 2005). In relation, understanding the intention of a caregiver also helps build in a child’s vocabulary. As a paradigm, when an experimenter tells an 18-month-old that they are looking for a ‘toma’ and then proceeds to look for it, rejecting objects until settling, with satisfaction for a final object, the majority of 18-month-olds will infer that this final object is the ‘toma’ (Tomaselo, 2003). Lastly, what all of these skills lead up to is the 100 word transition phase. After a child learns his or her first words, the next couple of months consistent of holophrases such as “nomore” until they have learnt about 100 words. Beyond this point, at around 18 months, children switch from holophrases to telegraphic speech (Bates et al. 1995). Three to four word phrases then begin around 24-27 months, the stage when grammar acquisition becomes important.
Component 3:Acquisition of Grammar
Grammar becomes increasingly more important around 24 months because now word order actually begins to change the meaning of speech. The two major components of grammar are syntax and morphology. Syntax is the organisation of words into larger structure like sentence; who did what to whom. Understanding knowing who did what to whom or the agent-patient relationships is vital to communication. Around the age of three, children start to show understanding on this relationship. Tomasello et al. (1998; 1999) taught children made-up verbs and by age three, the children were able to act out appropriate actions and modify the agent-patient relationships to fit new scenes.
Once this skill has been attained, children can also start using synaptic bootstrapping; using grammatical information to infer the meaning of unfamiliar words (Gleitman, 1990). This is particularly useful when a child is having a conversation with anyone with a broader vocabulary, allowing them to carry on speaking without actually knowing every word. To continue, understanding morphology or word structure like plurals, possession, tense etc. allows children to use words productively in conversation. The wug test (Berko, 1958), suggests that understanding morphemes develops between the age of four and five. Understanding both syntax and morphology helps a five year old get around the barriers of having a conversation with someone more versed than them.
Component 4: Developing Pragmatics
Finally, the acquisition of pragmatics is also a necessary tool for holding a conversation, regardless of age. The first pragmatic skills occurs even in infants, maintaining eye-contact with the people speaking to them. Maintaining eye-contact and eventually responding with smiles and sounds lets the other speaker know that the child is paying attention. Eventually, around 11 months this skill helps develop joint attention whereby the child can actually direct their caregivers attention (Smith et al. 2011). By a child is five, expressing intent is necessary to get their point across, setting the topic and for taking turns in speaking (Bates, 1976; Strivers et al. 2009). Finally, developing an understanding for implicature and referencing is also a necessary skill for conversation. Studies show that by age five children have learnt that they can use pronouns to refer to people, persons and things which are clearly seen or recently spoken off (Matthews et al. 2006). Until this age, to refer to things children will point to remain ambiguous. Understanding implicature like “I ate some cake” meaning “some” and not “all” also develops by around five years of age. Both of these skills are extremely helpful tools for a five year especially for clear communication and reduces ambiguity and confusion. Fortunately, by this age, should ambiguity remain, a five-year old will actively search the scene for clues that will reduce confusion. In other words, by age five, children have learnt the pragmatic skills to steer them through must conversational confusion.
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