Child Language Acquisition and Development: How can our understanding of linguistics cultivate strategic change in education?
Issue 10: News Section | author: Ece Kucuk
Ece Kucuk, 4th year MA English Language and Literature student at the University of Edinburgh, discusses two recent studies on language acquisition and how we can use their findings to better support children at home and in the classroom.
Though language is a significant aspect of our identity as individuals and as a society, it is underemphasised where decisions are made about the structure of institutions within communities. When considering how we educate children, consulting relevant linguistic data could significantly impact how we approach children in the classroom.
In a 2022 article by Wilson, Lawrence, and Katsos, the question was once again raised as to whether children could consider the speaker's perspective when making pragmatic inferences. The study was based on the knowledge and finding that children can successfully make pragmatic inferences, specifically ad hoc quality implicatures. For example, if the speaker said, 'there are oranges on this card', the child would correctly assume that there are only oranges on the card and nothing else. This kind of implicature can be derived from Grice's Theory of Maximum Informativity, meaning that the child assumes that the speaker is sharing all the information they have and that if there were anything else on the card, they would have expressed that to them. However, Grice also considers that to make correct inferences, one must consider the speaker's perspective.
Although there is evidence that adults can do this successfully, there is much argument in the linguistic community and some debate as to whether children can accomplish this. The study considers two significant hypotheses to address this question: either children acquire the ability to make pragmatic inferences and epistemic reasoning at the same time, or they can make pragmatic inferences, to begin with egocentrically (i.e., taking into consideration only their perspective) and acquire the ability to consider the speaker's epistemic state later on they continue to develop. In order to test which hypothesis had more merit, the study designed an experiment with adults and children where they were introduced to a picture matching director task.
In this experiment, they had four double-sided picture cards and, based on what instructions they were given, had to consider which card the speaker wanted. One picture was only visible to the listener (the child) and considered privileged ground. The other three pictures were in common ground, meaning both the speaker (the adult) and listener could see them.
In order to understand whether children could take into consideration the speaker's perspective, four conditions were set. If the speaker asked, for example, for the listener to pick up the card with apples on it, in the control condition (common ground unambiguous), the only card with apples on it would be in the common ground. In another condition, the same card (with only apples) would be in both the privileged ground and common ground (privileged ground ambiguous). The third condition considered the ad hoc implicature where there would be one card in the common ground with just apples and another in the common ground with apples and bananas. The fourth and most significant condition in understanding whether children consider the speaker's perspective is privileged ground ad hoc, where there would be a card on the common ground containing apples and bananas and a card on the privileged ground with just apples. If the children chose the card on the privileged ground, one could infer that they do not consider the speaker's perspective, but if they chose the card on common ground, that could mean they do consider it.
Unfortunately, the experiment had certain flaws, as it closely imitated previous picture-matching tasks run on adults and was restructured to run on children. Regardless of the flaws, however, they came to the result that adults succeeded when considering the speaker's perspective, but the children inevitably failed. In order to work out specific issues that arose during the experiment and to see whether they would get the same results, they set forth a second round of experiments with certain adjustments and, again, ended up with similar results.
In a recent three-year study by Vyshedsky, children with language deficiencies were given voluntary imagination intervention including on-verbal and verbal gamified exercises to test whether the evolutionary acquisition of language arose from our ability as humans to articulate speech or whether it was connected to our ability to use voluntary imagination. The non-verbal exercises were expected to help train the voluntary imagination of atypical children visually and with implicit instructions. Verbal activities would help exercise their voluntary imagination by using more elaborate syntax and higher forms of language. The study found that this intervention helped improve the combinatorial language comprehension of children with language deficiencies. This could mean that speech is less essential for combinatorial language and that voluntary imagination is much more critical. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that children generally develop the ability to articulate speech by age two, years before they acquire the voluntary imagination necessary to comprehend spatial prepositions, recursions, and complex fairy tales. As voluntary imagination means one acquires the ability to imagine and recall modifiers, such as adjectives, and the ability to realise mental rotation in their mind, it is essential for these acts.
Both of these studies raise questions regarding the language development abilities of young children and what they are capable of doing at certain ages. By better understanding how children develop the ability to communicate, such as their ability to consider the perspective of the speaker or acquire voluntary imagination to help with combinatorial language, we can better serve those children in the education system. In classrooms with younger children (ages 4-6), incorporating more imaginative play into the curriculum could help children better grasp combinatorial language. For children who struggle with this in later years, incorporating more performance and scenario-based puzzles and project in the English classroom could help them improve significantly. If children do indeed struggle to consider the perspective of the speaker when you communicate with them, educators could use this knowledge to practice making inferences with them in the classroom. Perhaps a more targeted approach where we introduce children to different sentence structures and to making calculated inferences regarding the perspective of the speaker could help them acquire this ability earlier on. It could also help students with language development disorders or students with special needs catch up to their peers in later stages.
When children are young, they do not have adult communication abilities, and yet, as a society, we hold them to the same standards as we would adults. We try to push and force them to develop, and when they struggle, their needs and wants are pushed aside because they are not easily conveyed to us. If parents and educators understand how children develop linguistically, they could better support them both in the home and the classroom. By continuing to further linguistic research into the language development of children, as linguists, we could also better understand them and help their parents and educators do so.
Language is a powerful tool, and the ability to communicate is often taken for granted. We should continue to remind ourselves that this is a privilege and help those who do not have a voice loud or articulate enough to help themselves.
 Wilson, E., Lawrence, R., & Katsos, N. (2022). The Role of Perspective-Taking in Children’s Quantity Implicatures. Language Learning and Development, 1-21
 Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In Speech Acts (pp. 41-58). Brill.
 Vyshedskiy, Andrey. (2022). Language evolution is not limited to speech acquisition: a large study of language development in children with language deficits highlights the importance of the voluntary imagination component of language. Research Ideas and Outcomes, 8, e86401.
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