Theories of Communication and Language Acquisition


22 Nov 2017

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  • Natalie Ulugün



What is communication?

According to Buckley ( ) communication is the delivery of information from one person to another whereby the intended meaning is understood. Communication is a multi-faceted feature that enables humans to identify with their own socio-emotional world and its relation to others. Communication requires motivation and auditory processing ability. Moreover, the ability to understand and convey messages both verbally and non-verbally use sensori-motor skills. Buckley ( ) suggests communication skills normally develop from birth through early maternal interaction and evolve through the experience of play. However, communication is complex and relies on intrinsic and extrinsic factors for development this can result in some infants not developing the necessary skills for communication. This essay will discuss the processes involved in both the development and deficiency of communication skills in young children and it’s effect on their emotional and cognitive development. Particular significance to the role of play in in this development will be outlined and evaluated.

The ability to communicate effectively is essential to human social interaction. Furthermore, communication skills provide the basis for successful edification, relationships and the participation in the wider community (miller et al). The two modes of communication are verbal and non-verbal. Bruce (2005) suggests up to 85% of our communication is non-verbal which includes all non-spoken means of communication such as gestures, body language, expression and sign. Verbal communication uses spoken language to convey information. The human brain, central nervous system, physical articulators and ears are required to produce speech. If any one area has a deficit it will have an effect on speech development.

According to Kahim(1998)cites (asha 1983) communication using language requires the comprehension of social interrelations. These can include complex modes such as motivation, tacit clues and social and cultural rules. Buckley () suggests language is a symbolic mode of communication governed by grammatical and social rules .These rules not only encompass semantics, syntax and phonology but also the contextual considerations of language such as sarcasm, politeness strategies referred to as pragmatics (Bloom and Lahey 1978). In view of such intricacies de Boysson-Bardies( 1999) affirms the acquisition of language must be genetically encoded and exclusive to human beings. This is a nativist approach to language acquisition which was embraced by Noam Chomsky.

Theories of language acquisition

Chomsky (1959) proposed that children have an innate ability to learn language through a language acquisition device. According to Chomsky (1965) the brain is hard wired through genomes to understand a spoken language. He suggests the L.A.D is situated within the auditory cortex. It has also been suggested by Lenneberg (1967) that if language is not acquired by puberty it can never be learnt. This suggests that the ability to learn languages is genetically acquired through synapse connection in the brain and furthermore has a critical period to stimulate its development (Schwartz 2009).

The interactionist approach suggests language acquisition is a process influenced by environmental and nativist elements. Vygotsky and Bruner held the view that a child needs interaction with others to support language learning. This is known as LASS Language acquisition support system.

Conversely traditional behaviourist’s theory of language acquisition suggests children acquire language through conditions and reinforcement. This is evidenced through observation of a new-born and mother. The new born’s motivation for communication is rewarded by the mother’s interaction.

Crystal (1986) argues that children do not simply imitate adults or older children when acquiring language; this is evidenced by the immature and incomplete speech that children develop as a result of applying grammatical rules or possessing inadequate vocabulary. This is evidenced in the following case studies. 

The processes involved in development of effective communication

Verbal and non verbal language development

Primarily, early communication is an expression of need ( Crystal). If an infant’s pre-linguistic vocalisations are rewarded by their needs being met they quickly learn the advantages of communication. Furthermore, an infant needs a warm and affectionate relationship with their caregiver in order to initiate communication. Ferroni et al (2002) demonstrated that early non-verbal communication such as eye gazing contributes to the development of facial decoding and the theory of mind. Theory of mind is a cognitive ability to decode nonverbal communication, deduce the emotional states of others using intuition and cues, as well as understanding a situation from different perspectives. According to Goldberg and Burdick( ) Theory of Mind deficits are caused by cognitive dysfunction and are present in neuropsychological conditions such as Bipolar euthymic and ASD spectrum disorders. This suggests a correlation between nonverbal communication impairment and future social cognitive development.

Nonverbal communication continues to develop alongside verbal communication in neurotypical children. According to Elks and McLachlan (2001) the most important process in verbal communication is concentration, listening skills and memory recall.

From four months a baby develops strength in their tongue and the in excess of one hundred jaw muscles needed to produce phonology. (Crystal ) begin babbling, the head and neck growth allow vocal chords to sit in correct position for speech consistant with an adult . This suggest there is a biological reason why a baby does not produce speech until ten months.

10-12 months

According to ( Volkmar) (Capone )as a child begins using gestures and pointing to objects they will acquire the symbolic language that represents the object however this is not always the case for children diagnosed with ASD. According to Baron- Cohen () young children diagnosed with ASD do not use pointing gesture to request visual attention in the same manner as neurotypical children, inasmuch as a child with ASD can lack motivation for conversation.

Communication chain

Elks and McLachlen (2008) highlight the complexity of language and communication by categorising the processes in sequential order; this is referred to as the Communication Chain. The metaphoric chain depicts the interdependence of each process involved in order to achieve effective communication. If there is a deficiency in any of these processes it will have an overall negative effect upon language acquisition and communication. The process begins with the motivation or reason to speak followed by choosing the correct semantics, syntax and phonology. The next stage involves the physicality of speech production, motor sensory instructions to the articulators which include the muscles, jaw and tongue. The production of sound then the delivery of pragmatic speech. Interestingly, the mindfulness or “self monitoring “of the appropriateness of the speech occurs after delivery. Thus implying that to self-monitor before you have an idea does not take place although it does prior to a response. Children diagnosed with ASD often have a deficit in understanding pragmatics of a language and can appear rude or their conversation inappropriate (Buckley). According to Volkmar et al ( )they equally lack ability to self-monitor, maintain eye contact and understand non-verbal cues which are the next phases; this is a substantial part of the communication chain.

Role of play in language development

According to Russell (2006) philosophers and scholars have attempted theorise play and provide definitions. The example by Hugh (1996:16) expresses the fundamental elements of play;

“…freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated.”

Frost et al (2005) suggests psychoanalytical theories of play involve a child acting out previous experiences that may have been caused trauma or fear. Or perhaps an emotion that would not be ordinarily accepted.

Other theories of play here

The EYFS Statutory framework (2008 suggested that play is vital to a child’s development; play should be supported by adults but led by the child thus promoting self-confidence, problem solving and social skills. Goouch (2006) adds, child led play promotes self-esteem and reinforces a child’s identity particulary the imaginary play. According to ( )play supports children to understand speech. Williamson and Silvern (1984) suggests when young children act out a story they demonstrate improved memory and comprehension of the story ( ) suggests language impairment and deficits in imaginary play occur concomitantly.

Hughs (2010) notes the similarities between language development and play inasmuch as the required skills for imaginary or symbolic play are likened to the ability to interpret the world through mental representation.

Observations were made of a young child actively playing alone commenting on his play activity.

Vygotsky, cited in Britton (1994:260) refers to this as “Speech for oneself”. This gradually diminishes as the child ages and eventually this process becomes internal thought. This process of internalised language is essential for problem solving, reasoning and abstract thinking skills. Concluding that the inability to internalise language would have a negative impact on cognitive development (Miller et al 2013 ).

According to Buckley () adult interaction is essential to develop language skills particularly reciprocal conversation aimed at the level of the child’s ability such as motherese or child directed speech. Evidence for ( ) suggest the pauses and intonation of motherese assists children to understand language syntactically .Somoa argues there is no difference in language aquistion in families not practising parentese ( the east) .

A child’s socio-emotional development depends on their command of language (Miller). Early infant and carer interaction is essential for all areas of a child’s development. As a child’s language develops they go from talking in the present tense and progressively to the past and future tense. Piaget suggests that not until a child has learned the concept of time will this be displayed within their language use.


Whitehead (2006) suggests that early skills for communication begin inutero .Evidence from ( ) argue that babies prefer the mothers face and voice, Infants gaze into their carers eyes from ? weeks they will then overt eye contact to cease communication .

Someone ( ) attributes the lack of communication in children with ASD to their lack of proficiency in play, particularly for imaginary play.

Vygotsky () theorised that play was significant to language and cognitive development. Vygotsky () argues it is necessary for a more knowledgeable other to confirm the correct language use.

Piaget theorised that the acquisition of language has a direct correlation on a child’s cognitive development. According to Piaget an infant will not apply nouns to objects until he has reached the cognitive ability of object permanence.. Not until a child reaches the pre operational stage ( About 2) two will they understand the world around them by the use of language and speech.


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