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Starting from Scratch: The beginnings of Communication

Alan Challoner MA MChS

One of the basic elements of a stable society is adequate and proper communication. This has developed in humans because biologically, the conditions for survival, reproduction and longevity are better served through social groupings than they are in solitary existence. The price that is paid for such cultural connections is agreements about coexistence and these are best agreed through communication. The nature of human civilisation in some respects has depended upon the local environment, and this in turn has organised communication. Work on pre-verbal vocal communication has been highlighted by Papouek et al.1 They suggest that human verbal communication that has brought about particular forms of adaptation, develops from prerequisites that are not unique to humans; they also function in infants prior to the acquisition of speech. They ask the question, if infants are capable of learning from the beginning of post-partum life but cannot store enough information due to infantile amnesia before speech, what then is the inter-relationship between infantile learning and speech development? Fodor has given a positive characterisation to the language of thought. He suggests that a language of thought that determines and supports thinking is a developmental one. His argument is to propose that children could not acquire language unless they already possessed a language of thought.2 Lieberman (1984) has indicated three main prerequisites of speech: anatomical development of the respiratory system and vocal tract that produce the variety of sounds; neural structures that control the voice production; and automatisation of the neural circuits that give meaning to some of the large variety of possible sounds.

Whilst all of these are present in some form in other than human species, their complementary interconnection, together with their neurological and physical complexity, bring about their uniqueness in humans.3 It seems likely that supportive care in the family sense, communicative development and the acquisition of speech, all relate to the establishment of strong social bonds. However prior to the initiation of vocalising there are preliminary patterns of behaviour such as, changes in general motility, facial expressions, hand gestures and pre-verbal sounds. (Papouek et al. Idem)

Vocal imitation and vocal play are also thought to help to complete the generation of infant speech. In this respect Lieberman (1984) has followed-up the work of Piaget. Equally important, in the pre-verbal period, is eye-to-eye contact. This contact draws the infants attention to the caregivers face, where a complex display of muscle activities, particularly around the areas of the mouth and eyes, offers finely differentiated examples 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 (Fridlund et al., 1987,) 4. Thus, it seems to be adaptively relevant to the infant to learn to pay sufficient attention to the caregivers face. Correspondingly, it may be relevant in the parent to support and reinforce this kind of infant learning. (Papouek et al. Idem) In patterns of intuitive, non-conscious parental behaviours, there is a parental support for the direct visual contact with infants and the tendency to maintain a relatively short eye-to-eye average distance of 22.5 cm [9 inches], a face-to-face position, and to carry out greeting responses immediately following eye-to-eye contact being made. However, the tendency

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to use a direct eye-to-eye gaze for prosocial purposes is most probably unique to humans. (Papouek et al. Idem) During the development of the systems necessary for speech acquisition there are involved both innately determined maturation as well as the gradual learning of the influence of environment (Lieberman, 1984). No other environmental situations offer such frequent and effective opportunities for learning speech as do dyadic social interactions with stable caregivers (Papouek et al. Idem) Human new-borns have an innate capability of crying, and for this purpose they can sustain an uninterrupted exhalation for several seconds. However, the capacity to produce speech sounds other than the cry lacks the adequate anatomical development of the vocal tract, the proper regulation of breathing and the neural structures necessary for communicative interactions. Vocal sounds other than crying are rare during the first weeks of life, and fundamental vowel-like voicing, produced occasionally during social interactions, is superimposed on the momentary type of breathing, and may sound like short rhythmical utterances. These however lack any communicative adjustment and yet alert the caregiver about changes in the infants behavioural-emotional state because changes in state determine the rate and type of breathing. (Papouek et al. Idem) By the time that the child is 6 to 8 months old, changes in both in the anatomy of the vocal tract and of brain structures have led to the situation in which the infant becomes capable of producing repetitive syllables like mama, and dada. To produce these, the infant must have learned to control respiration, use reasonably differentiated vowels, and be capable of various integrative processes. In addition to these, processes like pattern detection, rule detection, concept formation, use of abstract symbols, and memory storage are assumed to be involved. The anatomic growth of the skull base, vocal tract, and the chest, and the production of differentiated speech sounds, may show relatively small plasticity in response to environmental factors. (Papouek et al. Idem) Some of aspects of the acquisition of speech during infant development have remained unclear. These include the question concerning environmental support to speech acquisition. Papouek makes two arguments: in cases of trans-cultural adoptions, children acquire the language of adoptive rather than biological parents; and parents and care-givers seem to be unable to convey the rules of grammar and syntax to their progeny prior to their progenys acquisition of speech.

The Papoueks have drawn attention to the intuitive or non-conscious parental behaviours, those forms that parents carry out unknowingly and can hardly control consciously. They have described a set of interesting intuitive behaviours that previously escaped the attention of researchers. These have revealed that they fulfil criteria of didactic interventions, because parents enhance infant skills and intervene in accordance with the momentary state of infant alertness, attention, affective mood, and limits of tolerance. They suggested that there is a primary, biologically determined model of didactics included in intuitive parental behaviours and that it mainly concerns the means of pre-verbal communication, namely the pre-verbal vocal, facial, and gestural patterns of communication. An analysis by Bornstein demonstrated in global parameters how mother and infant jointly contribute to developing cognitive competence in the child.5 The universality of didactic interventions seems to cause a qualitative homogeneity, necessitated by the constraints of infant learning and cognitive capacities, whereas their quantity seems to be variable across social classes and cultures, and also to depend on the amount experience in care-giving to infants.6 For instance, traditionally fathers have been reported to talk less to babies than do mothers,7, 8 and lower-class mothers to talk less than do middle-class mothers (in the United States, in England and in Israel).9,10,11 Mothers also speak less to babies due to cultural beliefs, for instance, among Guatemalan Indians,12 or among African Zambians.13 Sensory deficiencies in the developing child create obstacles to the emergent empathic connections. It is because of the mothers preconceived ideas of natural development and her belief in its infinite variables, as they might refer to her child, that she rarely comes to an

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early conclusion that there might be a sensory impairment. She seems more likely to take the stance that any behavioural problem is of unknown origin, and may adopt almost any course of action other than the right one. This of course means that such children will be marked out as under-achievers, because they are unable to communicate freely and interact in a complete way with their peers and teachers. If the problem is not identified at an appropriate age it can result in the child becoming a low-achiever, when in fact their intelligence level could be much higher. Indeed it has been shown that where adequate care has been taken to control for the influence of speech, the congenitally deaf show no intellectual deficits when compared to those who can hear normally. 14 Another factor to be considered is that the presence of the developmental accoutrements of organised speech does not imply that there is the relevant motivation. Thus oral language use is a separate skill that has to be developed. Conversely the inability to use vocal/auditory systems does not imply a lack of motivation to communicate. The expected course of development is that at the time there is an ability shown to make speech sounds there will also be developing object relations that allow a differentiation to be made between self and others. It is from this process, and as a result of adequate responses, that the motivation to communicate is developed. The strength, direction and organisation of the responses will determine the level of capability achieved. The childs genetic endowment makes it possible for him to acquire speech more or less readily, but the verbal concepts and ways of inter-relating them are laid down by his cultural group just as are the correct sounds. Moreover, while language gives him extraordinary flexibility in the formulation of new utterances for describing and analysing his world, at the same time it restricts his thoughts very largely to those conceptualisations recognised by his particular group. The rle of parents in bringing about the acquisition of good language and communications skills cannot be over-emphasized. The foetus is able to pick up the sounds of its mothers voice and this will be the start of a process that should continue from the earliest days following birth. Papouek has drawn attention to the importance of pre-verbal communication, emphasizing the way in which it plays a key rle in the environmental support to infant cognition, communication and social integration. 15 Very young infants have to make do with systems other than verbal ones if they are to communicate in an effective way, particularly during interactions with the mother. Bruner has called this constitutive reality, and has described it as a transactional approach between two people during which their actions will affect the outcome for each. They start as biological determinations and are slowly organised into intentional controls. Initially the system uses codes rather than words, particularly on the infants side. These are developed, organised and form particular sequences. They form the basis for speech when the codes are elaborated into a language of words. Bruner suggests that this process is also a part of identity formation, as the interactions with others acts on the self by steps built on experience.16 Observations of this transitional communication have been made by Blake and Dolgoy as they video-recorded four infants at home with their parents during the period from age nine months through to 14 months. The complete repertoire of communicative gestures was coded. From these it was found that: comment gestures (e.g. pointing at pages of a book or at an object) increased after 11 months; request gestures, using the adult as an agent, increased after 13 months; some of the more primitive reach-request and emotive gestures declined after 11 months.17

Shukla and Das have also stressed the importance of understanding this coded communication in infants. They extend the concept by suggesting that it has a great influence on social class differences in the use of language. They believe that there is an implied relationship between this early level of communication and language and thought, and that both are connected to social structure. The joint developmental aspects of

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language and the environment affect the general competence of a child to deal with the communication needs as it enters into a more active social existence.18 The parental rle is to some extent an unconscious one and therefore the quality of the speech that the parents have acquired will affect that of their children. There are unfortunate possibilities for the essential processes to be disturbed or inhibited by pathological deviations or unfavourable socio-cultural circumstances, whether in the domain of the parent or the infant. For example, self-directed speech appeared much more often in secure than in insecure toddlers,19 and was often used to guide the toddler to the correct means to achieving some end. A proper understanding of the nature and development of speech in children, together with the environmental and psychological variables, is helpful in engaging intervention where there is or could be communicative incompetence. Vernon20 has proposed that during the first two years, speech is used mainly as a means of emotional expression, and allows for the making of social contacts and influencing people. During the third year (given normal development) it plays an increasingly important part in perceptual development, as the child comes to realise that each thing or action has a permanent name. This enables him to sort out and classify the world. Constant questioning by him allows the testing of the correctness of what he is absorbing. It helps to recall his past and gives him hopes for the future. Communications with adults and his peer group develops an awareness of the childs universe, what things are and what to do about them. Attention has been drawn to the work of Russian psychologists such as Vygotsky and Luria21 to the importance of inner speech in self-direction and the planning of actions at quite an early age. When a child begins to respond to the speech of his mother he finds it difficult to separate general speech from impellent speech. There may be occasions when he senses from the tone of his mothers words that she is commanding, or warning of potential danger, but usually there is not much evidence of this separation until about the age of fifteen to eighteen months. At this point he will be able to associate certain phrases as demanding his attention because he knows that she is asking him to do or not to do something. Even so there is still a further period before he is able to switch directions of an action to order. For example if his mother tells him to put on his shoe, and whilst he is doing that he is told to take it off, he cannot give action to the second request. This is due to the fact that there is a continuing kinaesthetic stimulation in process. Indeed just such a contrary request will assert this stimulation to even greater momentum. It is not until the stage of development of a further regulatory function that a child can invoke an inhibitory reaction to a contrary request. Thus to punish a child of this age who is seemingly not only disobedient, but imperiously so, is unwarranted and will be completely meaningless to the child. Later there is another complication for the child. Although he can now cease an operation on request he is not easily able to accomplish multiple demands that are given at one time. So if he is asked to press the button when the light comes on he will not find this as easy as may be imagined from the apparently simple and clear instruction. To follow this request the

Piaget (1926) had hypothesised that there was a form of thought that stood midway between autism and socialised thought. He called this egocentric, and determined that it exhibited the qualities of both types of thought. He then wanted to discover if there was a matching decentralisation of speech, and he came to believe that children up to the age of seven years used a predominantly egocentric speech. Later McCarthy (1954) contested this view, and later still Piaget, having reviewed his ideas protested that they had been misinterpreted. He agreed that it was difficult to categorise childrens speech on the dimension of egocentrism, but maintained that his ideas were not intended to test it. Vygotsky (1962) followed up this conflict with his own studies and he accepted the existence of egocentric speech, and believed that it served a useful purpose in the childs development. He found that children used it more when facing stress or problems, and deduced that it helped them to find their way to a resolution. He considered that after the age of seven, egocentric speech becomes inner speech. Piaget, J. The Language and Thought of the Child. New York, USA, Harcourt Brace; 1926. McCarthy, D. Language development in children. In Carmichael, L. [Ed.] Manual of Child Psychology. (2nd edn.) New York, USA, Wiley. 1954. Vygotsky, L S. Thought and Language. New York, USA, Wiley; 1962.

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child has to link a future event with an action not yet accomplished. Thus in this case the verbal stimulus inhibits both the direct search for the signal, and the actual movement. The essence of the instruction is that it demands a synthesis of the two verbal elements: it is this creation of a preliminary system regulating a subsequent course of action that is the principal distinguishing feature of such verbal instructions. Even at the age of 2 to three years old he will have difficulty with precisely following the instructions. This is because the conditioned verbal instructions do not yet present a synthetic system and still act in piecemeal fashion. The main issue here is to underline how totally dependent childrens thinking must be on the speech models and communications they receive, chiefly from the parents, but also from older children and contemporaries, from teachers, and from the media in all its forms. Inadequate linguistic stimulation by illiterate parents is a theme which continually recurs in discussions of social class differences in ability and achievement. Moreover, probably to a greater extent than the other factors so far considered, it acts continuously on childrens mental growth from about six months to adulthood. A study by Milner found that there was a significant relationship between reading readiness and status. Those children who had richer verbal environment were also found to have had more books; were read to more by important adults; and were encouraged to talk. Milner also found that the parents of high-scoring children tended to express their affection for their children in an overt manner, while parents of low scorers did not consistently give their children overt signs of affection. Milner concluded that the lower-class child lacks two facilities: a warm family atmosphere (which she saw as a prerequisite for any kind of adultcontrolled learning); and the opportunity to interact verbally with adults of high personal value to the child who possess adequate speech patterns. 22

It is frequently suggested that the teaching styles of mothers shape the learning styles of their children. Thus a picture emerges indicating that the meaning of deprivation is a deprivation of meaning a cognitive environment in which behaviour is controlled by status rules rather than by attention to the individual characteristics of a specific situation and one in which behaviour is not mediated by verbal cues or by teaching that relates events to one another and the present to the future. A communication environment should be understood as a reflection of the actual demands that are placed on the individual and the opportunities they are given to communicate. It is created by those who are involved in caring for the individual person. If they do not establish an adequate communication environment then its appropriateness will be reduced. The degree to which this environment is established will inevitably affect the communicative competence of the individual person. Learning is a continuous experience, and with very young children this will usually be on an entirely informal basis. Right from the moment of birth, the more fortunate children will be parented in an atmosphere of communication. Both mother and father will spend time talking to their infant, and even if at that stage it does not understand the words, it will slowly be absorbing the sounds, the tone of voice and the associated expressions on the face of the speaker. 'Communication' from the Latin communicare is closely related to communitas, which means not only community, but also fellowship and justice in men's dealings with one another. Society is based on the possibility of people working together for common ends, in a word, co-operation. Without proper communication, co-operation may well be reduced. Equally, without proper communication between parents, siblings and the new infant, there will be a lack of learning, an absence of shared knowledge, information and experience. This will in turn lead to a deficient personality; for delays in learning may never subsequently be made up, and this will reduce the quality of personhood in the individual. The most recent research however has determined that children refine their reactions to particular events and formulate specialized skills within a coherent general ability to

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perceive. They are born with several complementary forms of knowing, and they use these to develop experience of the particular world they are in, assisted by communicating. One of the important developmental issues for any individual would appear to be the environment in which they grow up and the quantity and quality of communication that involves them. Where the environment and the communication are bad, their failure to comprehend and compete will bring about an intellectual deficit. This not only needs to be understood for the benefit of those who have experienced these deficits, but also for future generations of children for whom it may be possible to avoid communicative failure, intellectual deficit, and cultural incompetence. For those who are organically damaged, then recourse to good practices in terms of developing communication skills is the least they can expect from the society in which they live. If this is not provided then once more society will have to contribute in other less satisfactory ways in order to make up the gaps that will ensue in that person's life.


Papouek, H.; Papouek, M. Suomi, S.J.; & Rahn, C.W. Preverbal Communication and Attachment: Comparative Views. In Gewirtz, J.L.; & Kurtines, W.M. [Eds.] Intersections with Attachment. L. Erlbaum Assoc., Hillsdale, NJ, USA; 1991. Fodor, J. Language of Thought. New York, USA; T Y Crowell, 1975. Lieberman, P. The biology and evolution of language. Cambridge. MA, USA; Harvard University Press, 1984. Fridlund. A. J.; Ekman. P., & Oster. H. Facial expressions of emotions: Review of literature, 19701983. In A. Siegman & S. Feldstein [Eds.]. Nonverbal behaviour and communication. 2nd Ed.; Hillsdale, NJ, USA; Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 1987. Bornstein, M. H How infant and mother jointly contribute to developing cognitive competence in the child. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the USA., 82; [pp.,7470-7473]; 1985. Papouek, M.; Papouek, H.; & Bornstein, M. H. The naturalistic vocal environment of young infants: On the significance of homogeneity and variability in parental speech. In T. Field & N. Fox [Eds.]; Social perception in infants. [pp., 269-297]; Norwood, NJ, USA; Ablex. 1985. Field, T. Interaction behaviors of primary versus secondary caretaker fathers. Developmental Psychology, 14; [pp., 183-184]; 1978. Pedersen, F.A.; Anderson, B.; & Cain, R. Parent-infant and husband-wife interactions observed at the age of 5 months. In F. A. Pedersen [Ed.]; The father-infant relationship: Observational studies in the family setting. [pp., 71-86]; New York, USA, Praeger. 1980. Field, T., & Pawlby, S. Early face-to-face interaction of British and American working and middle-class mother-infant dyads. Child Development. 51; [pp., 250-253]; 1980. Ninio, A. Picture-book reading in mother-infant dyads belonging to two subgroups in Israel. Child Development, 51; [pp., 587-590]; 1980. Tulkin, S.R.; & Kagan, J. Mother-child interaction in the first year of life. Child Development. 43; .[pp., 323-340]; 1972. Kagan, J. & Klein, R. Cross-cultural perspectives on early development. American Psychologist. 28; [pp., 947-961]; 1973.




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Goldberg, S. Infant development and mother-infant interaction in urban Zambia. In P. H. Leiderman, S. R. Tulkin, & A. Rosenfeld; [Eds.]; Culture and infancy: Variations in the human experience. [pp., 211-243]; New York, USA, Academic Press, 1977. Vernon, M. Relationship of language to the thinking process. Arch. Gen. Psychiat., 16; [pp., 325333]; 1967. Papouek, H.; & Papouek, M. Beyond emotional bonding: The rle of preverbal communication in mental growth and health. Inf. Ment. Health Jnl.; 13(1); 1992. Bruner, J. Interaction, communication and self. Jnl. Amer. Acad. Child Psychiat.; 23(1); [pp., 17]; 1984 Blake, J. & Dolgoy, S.J. Gestural development and its relation to cognition during the transition to language. Jnl. Non-verbal Behav. 17(2); [pp., 87-102]; 1993. Shukla, S.; & Das, B.K. On language and social class. Soc. Science International, 3(1); 1987. Main, M. Exploration, play and cognitive functioning as related to infant-mother attachment. Infant Behaviour and Development; 6; [pp., 167-174]; 1983. Vernon, Philip E. Intelligence and Cultural Environment. London; Methuen. 1969. Luria, A. R. The Rle of Speech in the Regulation of Normal and Abnormal Behaviour. New York: The Liveright Publishing Corp.; 1961. Milner, E. A study of the relationship between reading readiness in grade one school children and patterns of parent-child interaction. Child Devel., 22; [pp., 95-112]; 1951.










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