All about Communication Development
By Devinda Senanayake
- The “Whys” and “Hows” of Language
- Language Prerequisite
The “Whys” and “Hows” of Language
“Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something”, goes the old, wise saying.
However, the wise man and the fool both deserve a standing ovation, for they are engaged in a complex human activity. Communication! It appears simple at a glance, but mastering all the facets of communication can take a lifetime. That’s why understanding the core components of communication is essential. Not only does that provide the tools to approach communication difficulties more carefully, but it also helps us to distinguish between different levels and purposes of verbal exchanges.
Why We Communicate
The practical purposes of communication include giving opinions, negotiating, asking and answering questions, persuading, and requesting. Under normal circumstances, constant practice and interaction with each other teach us these skills. But, if an adult or a child struggles to perform language-related tasks effectively, a language disorder might be a likely explanation. Think for a moment about a child who is wanting a cookie, or an adult expecting a pay rise. Neither of them will succeed in articulating what they need if they lack the necessary language skills.
In Speech-Language Therapy, an often-used analogy to explain language development is James Law’s language tree. Just like a tree that depends on its roots, our ability to exchange ideas verbally or nonverbally depends on several essential skills, all working together. In essence, these skills are cognition, comprehension, vocabulary, grammar and speech. Each one of them reinforces the others. For example, a child with weak cognition may struggle to acquire vocabulary and grammar later in life. Just like how the leaves of a tree are nourished by its roots but are also necessary themselves, the different levels of language are interrelated too. And the roots of language develop earlier than you might think.
According to research, language development starts when a child is still inside the womb. Spoken words, however, don’t occur until around one year of age. First, a baby will make babbling speech-like sounds, and gradually they will add one syllable at a time. Even so, uttering sensible words and expressing what they desire is impossible if a child hasn’t mastered language prerequisites. The first of these is the motivation to communicate.
Motivation to Communicate
For proper language development, children must have the need to communicate. Without that, there will be no practice, and without practice, developing meaningful language becomes hard. Children start making speech sounds as early as 18 months. However, a child lacking in motivation may not express what they want either verbally or gesturally. A typical scenario would be a child crying of frustration during play, not being able to communicate the reason for their frustration. It is a state of mind where the child feels that there is a problem, but isn’t aware of the need to express it. Fortunately, motivation to communicate can be taught! To stimulate communication, a Speech-Language Therapist (SLT) would use games and activities, as discussed next.
One such game is “Out-of-reach”. It provides the child with the necessary impetus to communicate. It also provides an immediate reward for his efforts. In this game, an SLT puts the child’s favourite toy or sweet inside a tightly closed transparent box. When the child pays attention, they place it in front of him. And the SLT keeps their hands open in a manner suggesting that they are there to help. They also monitor the child carefully, waiting for them to make physical gestures, eye contact, or sound. Just like for adults, sometimes, rewarding is the best incentive to stimulate action! A huge range of other activities that address different levels of communication motivation are also available. An SLT has the skills to identify the level of difficulty and design games, activities and other interventions accordingly.
Whatever the skills a child may master later in life, be it vocal or physical, it all comes down to healthy brain development. For instance, an infant passes through a period when they extend their arms and legs before starting to crawl. The purpose of these seemingly involuntary movements is to steady the spine and, without a steady back, the child’s posture will be affected – which in turn is a determining factor of talking. This coordinated process demonstrates how brain development affects various physical functions.
There are many indications of a child’s cognitive development. These signals vary depending on the age of the child. For example, a three-month-old shows signs of age-appropriate brain development when they startle at loud noises and move their eyes to follow the source of a sound. Whereas a child who is six months old may respond by arm or body movements, such as raising their arms when their mother calls. Around this time, children even develop the ability to look in response to hearing their name. Sometimes, parents may not notice these signals. However, just like with any other health condition, the sooner they seek professional help, the better the result will be. Even if the result is simply reassurance!
Unlike other speech-related difficulties, hearing impairments are not easily identifiable. Most of the time, parents feel that something is not right with their child, but struggle to pinpoint what it is. According to a retrospective study, only 25% of the parents with children who had hearing impairments had any initial suspicions of hearing loss. And less than 10% suspected that their children had a hearing impairment during infancy. While data varies, the consensus is that 14 babies per 10,000 suffer from hearing loss.
Not only does hearing loss delay language acquisition, but it can also create other problems.
A child who can’t hear well needs support to avoid being at a developmental disadvantage. That’s why the knowledge of hearing milestones is essential. By knowing when to act, a parent can help their child learn the foundations of language, even if that language is based on signing. As an example of the milestones to expect, a four-month-old with normal hearing should be able to wake up and stir at loud noises. Toward nine months, they should smile when spoken to. Noticing toys that make sounds is another sign of normal hearing. Since a child naturally starts verbal communication by 15 months, they should start making various babbling sounds around the nine to ten-month marks too. Then, at 24 months, by using the words they have already learnt and comprehended, a toddler should be able to point to basic body parts when asked. If a parent has doubts, consulting an SLT or Audiologist is recommended. If delayed detection has already impacted on the child’s ability to learn, an SLT will help them to overcome those difficulties.
Cognitive-communication skills allow us to exchange ideas with others and to “get along” in society. They guide our behaviour and impulses. In other words, they underpin social skills! The cognitive skills that most directly affect social language are short-term and long-term memory, attention and perception. Without them, planning, prioritising, stopping and starting activities and shifting from one activity to another are impossible. Since the full scope of the cognitive process deserves an article of its own, for now, we will only have a brief look at the three elements mentioned above.
As a cognitive skill, attention means awareness of person, place, time and circumstance. In some contexts, attention also implies the ability to concentrate. Often broken down into three types, they are:
- Focused attention
This is the ability to respond to things you see, hear or touch.
- Sustained attention
Ability to keep attention focused on one activity
- Divided attention
Ability to involve in two tasks simultaneously without compromising the quality (e.g. multitask)
At the time of birth, an infant’s brain is like a clean slate. But, until the age of eight, his brain absorbs knowledge like a sponge! As time progresses, and with language acquisition, a child develops the mental framework to categorise and memorise their experiences, thus creating a knowledge bank that they can refer to later on in life. Interestingly, with children below the age of five, memory doesn’t function as efficiently as it would for an adult. It is not a shortcoming, merely a phase of cognitive development! However, once the child reaches the age of five, their capacity to retain and recall both recent and distant memories grows significantly. If this is not the case, and if the cause is not established and treated accordingly, they may struggle from the very beginning and throughout their academic life. That’s why, especially in learning, memory has a massive role to play as a cognitive skill, and parents need to pay close attention. There are clearly defined functions of the memory, and they are:
- Sensory Memory
Without sensory memory, the ability to remember information related to smell, taste, touch, vision, and audition (hearing) cannot function.
- Short-Term Memory
This gives the ability to memorise things from a few seconds to a few minutes. With a poor recent memory, one can neither remember the name of somebody who has just been introduced to or remembers the instructions given only minutes ago. The complications this kind of forgetfulness can create can be embarrassing. Moreover, you need your short-term memory in good order even when you are writing a letter, as you need to memorise the content of the last completed sentence.
- Long-Term Memory
Ability to retrieve stored incidents or information spanning from a few minutes in the past to several years is called long-term memory.
- Procedural Memory
Ability to physically remember how to do actions, movements, or other motor activities; for example: serving a tennis ball, playing the piano.
- Prospective Memory
Out of all other memory functions, this is what facilitates our brain to remember things that need reminding. For instance, a promise to meet a friend at a specific place in two hours or taking medicine at the right time depends on our prospective memory. Even though we are not aware of it, these seemingly simple activities demand high-level of cognition.
Perception is a skill that gives us a visual and auditory sense. For centuries philosophers discussed what it is and how it defines individual world view. However, a simple definition would be the impression of an image or a sound created in our brain. While visual perception helps us to identify patterns, colours and shapes, auditory perception guides us to separate, interpret, and associate sounds with their respective meaning.
Diagnosing a cognitive difficulty can be performed only by a trained professional. However, if parents are aware of key milestones, they can at least be on alert. For instance, if an infant’s cognitive development is on track, they will noticeably recognise familiar faces as early as two months. Parents can look out for this, as well as other signs, like eye-tracking of movements. These seemingly insignificant movements are complex! But, if cognitive skills are not entirely developing as expected, conditions like language processing and word retrieval disorders can arise. These can have a detrimental effect on a child’s future. The good news is, though, that an SLT can help! He or she can teach kids to overcome difficulties with compensatory methods.
You may now get a sense of how awe-inspiring the process of communication development is. Imagine it as a precisely coordinated machine with many parts working simultaneously. Children need to have a reason for communication. And when they speak, there are a raft of language prerequisites supporting the process. But one broken wheel can make the whole machine grind to a stop. Which is of course, what we’re here to help with! Lastly, think for a moment about all those who struggle in any of the areas discussed above. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to help them on their journey to communicate?