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Communication and the Acquisition of Language

Communication and the Acquisition of Language

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Published by Alan Challoner
From time immemorial we have known that communication is a basic element of progress. Without a common understanding through language we cannot know who or what we are, or how we must behave in order to live congruently and congenially with others in our society. The metaphor of the Tower of Babel is apt, especially for infants who have to learn their communication from scratch. However this does not start at birth, more likely at conception. We neglect the neo-natal period at our peril in this respect. Thereafter every minute in every hour is precious in the life of the burgeoning intellect of the growing child.
From time immemorial we have known that communication is a basic element of progress. Without a common understanding through language we cannot know who or what we are, or how we must behave in order to live congruently and congenially with others in our society. The metaphor of the Tower of Babel is apt, especially for infants who have to learn their communication from scratch. However this does not start at birth, more likely at conception. We neglect the neo-natal period at our peril in this respect. Thereafter every minute in every hour is precious in the life of the burgeoning intellect of the growing child.

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Published by: Alan Challoner on Feb 18, 2009
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03/24/2012

 
Communication and the Acquisition of Language
Alan Challoner MA MChS
The more complete the information that a person is able to communicate to someone he truststhe more he himself becomes able to dwell on it, to understand it and to see its implications.
 John Bowlby
A
BSTRACT
From time immemorial we have known that communication is a basic element of progress.Without a common understanding through language we cannot know who or what we are, orhow we must behave in order to live congruently and congenially with others in our society. The metaphor of the Tower of Babel is apt, especially for infants who have to learn theircommunication from scratch. However this does not start at birth, more likely at conception.We neglect the neo-natal period at our peril in this respect. Thereafter every minute in everyhour is precious in the life of the burgeoning intellect of the growing child.Vocabulary and the general adequacy and completeness of speech vary by socio-economicclass. Speech is poorer in form and articulation, less in amount, and less precise for children atlower socio-economic levels than for those at higher social levels (see Irwin, 1948,
1
).Another important consideration is that the sooner a child develops adequate language, thesooner he is able to understand the intentions and requirements of his parents, and to respondaccordingly. This verbal comprehension helps a child understand the difference between his“now” behaviour and his “next”. A better discrimination of his mother’s intentions leads tomore efficient learning.
2
One of the early ways of predicting the future intelligence of children, tested as infants, wasthe measurement of their speech sounds.
3
Children reared with meagre adult attention, andwho are relatively isolated or who live in institutions, are handicapped even more in theirspeech than in their general IQ level. This type of handicap has been shown to exist as earlyas two months of age. Children who, at elementary school ages, test at the mentallyhandicapped or borderline level started talking later than children who measured normal orbright. At least during the early years of their lives, twins and triplets test lower in both speechand intelligence than singletons, although much of this lag is overcome by school age. Theirspeech seems to be even more handicapped than can be accounted for by their somewhatlower intelligence test scores.
1
 
Pathak,
et al
., have studied the influence of socialisation, parental deprivation and familypsychiatric history on the speech development of 267 institutionalized mentally handicappedchildren aged ten years. The subjects were matched on sex, locality and IQ level as well as onage. The indications from the study are that where speech development takes place it has aneffective quality that depends upon the social environment in which the therapy is located.Where there were lack of adequate components such as poor environment and small familysize, the child became discouraged and self-centred. There was no relation found betweenspeech development and the family psychiatric history.
4
Skuse takes the view that theevidence is not clear-cut regarding the possibility that some exposure to language andcommunication is essential at an early age in order to facilitate later acquisition of speech.
5
One of the basic elements of a stable society is adequate and proper communication. This hasdeveloped in humans because biologically, the conditions for survival, reproduction andlongevity are better served through social groupings than they are in solitary existence. Theprice that is paid for such cultural connections is agreements about coexistence and these arebest agreed through communication. The nature of human civilisation in some respects hasdepended upon the local environment, and this in turn has organised communication. The rôle of language is that it forms the basis of rule-governed-behaviour. Languagedevelopment controls the rule’s form. Syntax dictates the form of the interactions that can berepresented by language and, therefore, made into rules. The stepped nature of the learningof language means that its function in controlling behaviour of self and others is adevelopmental process. Almost all the tenses are necessary for rule-governed behaviour. Onlyvariable names and the subjunctive, especially the “if” forms and the future subjunctive,develop later. The major forms are used in inner speech to guide action and probably the“internalisation” of imitative acts. Concrete and lower-stage planning is limited by having torepresent linguistically past task solutions. Abstract and formal-stage speech allow one tocheck the consequences of various possible actions implied by a sequence of propositions.
6
Papoušek
et al
., have argued that:
“…communication is based on an innate integrative and communicative pre-adaptedness,including learning, categorisation, imitation, and overt expression of two fundamental regulatoryalternatives, the first being interpretable as approach and assimilation, often perceived aspleasure, and the second related to avoidance, rejection, and displeasure. This integrative-communicative pre-adaptedness supports speech acquisition and then profits from speech asverbal symbolisation provides both new dimensions and an open-ended set of topics forprocesses of thought and communication.”
7
Fairly recent work on pre-verbal vocal communication has been highlighted by Papoušek
et al
.(
Idem
). They suggest that human verbal communication that has brought about particularforms of adaptation develops from prerequisites that are not unique to humans; they alsofunction in infants prior to the acquisition of speech. They ask the question, if infants arecapable of learning from the beginning of post-partum life but cannot store enough informationdue to infantile amnesia before speech, what then is the interrelationship between infantilelearning and speech development?Fodor has given a positive characterisation to the language of thought. He suggests that alanguage of thought that determines and supports thinking is a developmental one. Hisargument is to propose that children could not acquire language unless they already possesseda language of thought.
8
Lieberman (1984) has indicated three main prerequisites of speech:
anatomical development of the respiratory system and vocal tract that produce thevariety of sounds;
neural structures that control the voice production;
and automatisation of the neural circuits that give meaning to some of the largevariety of possible sounds.
2
 
Whilst all of these are present in some form in other than human species, their complementaryinterconnection, together with their neurological and physical complexity, bring about theiruniqueness in humans.
9
It seems likely that supportive care in the family sense, communicative development and theacquisition of speech, all relate to the establishment of strong social bonds. However prior tothe initiation of vocalising there are preliminary patterns of behaviour such as,
changes in general motility,
facial expressions,
hand gestures and pre-verbal sounds. (Papoušek
et al
.
Idem
)
Vocal imitation
and
vocal play 
are also thought to help to complete the generation of infantspeech. In this respect Studdert-Kennedy
and Lieberman (1984
Idem
) have followed-up thework of Piaget. Equally important, in the pre-verbal period, is
eye-to-eye contact 
. This contactdraws the infant’s attention to the caregiver’s face, where a complex display of muscleactivities, particularly around the areas of the mouth and eyes, offers finely differentiatedexamples of the production of both vocal and non-vocal communicative signals, expressions of internal states and emotional feelings, as well as indicators of the course of thought processes
. Thus, it seems to be adaptively relevant to the infant to learn to pay sufficient attention tothe caregiver’s face. Correspondingly, it may be relevant in the parent to support andreinforce this kind of infant learning. (Papoušek
et al
.
Idem
)In patterns of intuitive, non-conscious parental behaviours, there is a parental support for thedirect visual contact with infants and the tendency to maintain a relatively short eye-to-eyeaverage distance of 22.5 cm [9 inches], a face-to-face position, and to carry out “greetingresponses” immediately following eye-to-eye contact being made. However, the tendency touse a direct eye-to-eye gaze for prosocial purposes is most probably unique to humans.(Papoušek
et al
.
Idem
)During the development of the systems necessary for speech acquisition there are involvedboth innately determined maturation as well as the gradual learning of the influence of environment (Lieberman,
idem
1984). No other environmental situations offer such frequentand effective opportunities for learning speech as do dyadic social interactions with stablecare-givers (Papoušek
et al
.
Idem
)Human new-borns have an innate capability of crying, and for this purpose they can sustain anuninterrupted exhalation for several seconds. However, the capacity to produce speechsounds other than the cry lacks the adequate anatomical development of the vocal tract, theproper regulation of breathing, and the neural structures necessary for communicativeinteractions. Vocal sounds other than crying are rare during the first weeks of life, andfundamental vowel-like voicing, produced occasionally during social interactions, issuperimposed on the momentary type of breathing, and may sound like short rhythmicalutterances. These however lack any communicative adjustment and yet alert the caregiverabout changes in the infant’s behavioural-emotional state because changes in state determinethe rate and type of breathing. (Papoušek
et al
.
Idem
)Before distinct vowels develop, the fundamental voicing first acquires features of a pleasant,melodic sound approaching the sound of a musical instrument. Melodic intonation contoursand voice quality not only add hedonic qualities to these sounds but also allow the caregiver todifferentiate various internal states in the infant.
By the time that the child is 6 to 8 months old, changes in both in the anatomy of the vocaltract and of brain structures have lead to the situation in which the infant becomes capable of producing repetitive syllables like “mama,” and “dada”. To produce these, the infant musthave learnt to control respiration, use reasonably differentiated vowels, and be capable of various integrative processes. In addition to these, processes like pattern detection, ruledetection, concept formation, use of abstract symbols, and memory storage are assumed to beinvolved. The anatomic growth of the skull base, vocal tract, and the chest, and the productionof differentiated speech sounds, may show relatively small plasticity in response toenvironmental factors. (Papoušek
et al
.
Idem
)
3

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