How do children communicate?
Language is a mix of sounds, symbols, words and gestures which combine to produce the communicative process. We could define it as a system in which the information from the sender to the recipient is coded in a symbolic manner. Although language development is characterised by an enormous variation from person to person, there are some universal stages regardless of the language that is being learnt.
The pathways of language development can be influenced by genetic factors, i.e. the variables that are handed down from parent to child, and environmental factors, namely the factors relating to individual, social and contextual experiences.
In their early years of life, children live out and fulfil various developmental “stages” leading to the gradual acquisition of word usage.
When children move, make gestures and speak, are these actions different from each other?
When our children speak, they perform real actions which we could qualify as “linguistic actions”, which are not very different from the movement or gestural actions. For example, if a child says to their mother “I’m hungry”, the message expresses the same need that the child conveyed as a baby crying for its next feed.
Verbal language is not the only form of communication; on the contrary, there are a number of communicative modes: non-verbal, facial expressions, proxemics, eye-to-eye contact etc.
Language, in particular has various functions, including:
- the cognitive function which enables the acquisition of knowledge without experiencing it directly;
- the symbolic function i.e. the ability to use symbols and then match a sign or a sound with concepts and objects in the real world. The importance of this function lies not so much in learning words but in the ability to relate every single word to understanding what each word represents.
- the communicative function i.e. the possibility of communicating with other people.
How can I help my child to communicate?
The differences in language development from person to person involves times and procedures regarding acquisition and learning strategies. When we talk about language development, we must also take into consideration the affective, relational and environmental context. Every child learns to speak through according to their own personal procedures and times and their reference adults have an important role in determining aspects regarding the quantity and quality of language development.
In order to promote language development in pre-school age, it is important for adults to offer children as many opportunities as possible for exposure to language and that they support its development bearing in mind its various sub-levels:
- phonetics - phonology: the sounds of a language
- semantics - syntax: words and meanings
- morphology - syntax: sentences and grammar
- pragmatics: communicative function
What if a child does not speak? Or what if the child speaks too much?
The majority of linguistic rules are learnt by the age of 4 or 5 and children at this age should speak almost like adults.
The acquisition of linguistic competence does not end, however, after the first years of life but, on the contrary, is a dynamic, ongoing process which needs to stimulated and supported.
Parents very often compare the language of their children with that of the children of the same age, and very often this comparison turns into a form of excessive worry and apprehension which may be perceived by their children and result in affecting their communicative procedures. When people talk about language, they often tend to think that it is regulated totally by internal, biological factors but actually there are many different variables that affect its development.
Parents can perceive and observe whether there are any difficulties in communication and this is fundamental because these difficulties may only be a transitory stage in the development of their child or the display of a difficulty that requires attention and clinical assessment.
All children have something important to say and we must learn to listen to them respecting the time they need and taking account of individual variables, but if there are difficulties in language understanding or production and in communication in general, it is a good idea to seek help and ask for an opinion from relevant experts.