Friday, April 20, 2012

An Infant's Role in Language Learning

    Q-ball is increasingly starting to experiment with language.  She is speaking more often (Mamamama, Dada, hi, bye-bye, Baba (our cat)), and it is obvious that she is more focused on what we are saying.  She is now able to respond to multiple commands and points to images in books when they are named.  Lots of recent research encourages parents to read to their children and speak to them during daily activities. By exposing children to language in these ways, parents are helping children develop their own lexicon.  These methods are part of the larger learning theory known as "scaffolding."  First developed by Leo Vygotsky, the theory stresses the importance of social interactions in learning and states that many activities can only be mastered with guidance from an adult or "more capable peer."
    Within my education experience, I have studied and used Vygotsky and other "constructivist" ideas rather extensively.  I was very intrigued, then, to read about the intentionality theory of language development.  Instead of focusing on the role of the adult in language acquisition, it examines the role of the child (imagine that!)  The authors of the study state that "scaffolding...and relative economic resources...ignore the child's intentionality, as a person with thoughts and feelings in consciousness that are about something. It is what a child's intentional states are about, and children's strong inclinations to express their intentionality by acting in order to share intentional states with other persons, that determine why and how language is learned."
   I thought this statement was fascinating!  And, how true! I read quite a bit of research about child development and, strangely, the child's thoughts and feelings are rarely taken into account.  The research is much more likely to focus on how adults can influence the children's actions.  This is clearly important for advances in educational practices.  However, as a parent, I am most excited about Q-ball's increase in language development because I am now better able to understand her thoughts and feelings.  
    Of course, the intentionality theory isn't just heart-warming.  It is also based on research!  Here's a rundown of the supporting evidence the authors found through longitudinal observations of 12 children in New York (they were observed from age 9 months until 15 months):
  • In daily conversations, mothers were much more likely to talk AFTER their children initiated the conversations.  Unlike the scaffolding model of language learning, the mothers were not guiding their children's conversations.
  • Only about one-third of a children's speech is in response to something the mothers initiated. The vast majority of the time, children initiated their own conversations.  Thus, "Participation in these earliest conversations was motivated by a child's own cognitive agenda to express something in mind, and conversations functioned to allow the children to direct the flow of the interaction in order to express and thereby share what was relevant to them."
  • Mothers typically respond by simply acknowledging or clarifying the child's comments. They are not "scaffolding" in that they are not providing additional words or working to expand the children's statements.   
This kid definitely is the primary driver of most things in our household!
   I should certainly clarify that the intentionality theory is not stating that reading and speaking to your child have no effect on language learning.  Quite the opposite!  Maximum exposure to language is still essential and incredibly beneficial.  This theory differs from others in that the child is the primary driver in his own language development.  He listens to everything around him and then picks out words that are relevant to him.  An example might be that the mother is working very hard to teach her child the word "broccoli."  She practices every day by giving the baby broccoli and repeating the word over and over, but he shows no interest. But, on just one occasion, she gives the baby a "cookie."  Guess what word he starts repeating every day!  Cookie- something in which he is very interested!
   This theory hasn't changed the way that I will be using language around Q-ball, but it does make me even more excited to see what she will say next!

How has your child's language development allowed you to better understand his thoughts and feelings?

Bloom, L.  Margulis, C., Tinker, E., & Fujita, N. (1996). Early conversations and word learning: Contributions from child and adult. Child Development, 67, 7,3154-31.


  1. I haven't read the Wonder Weeks, but I have explored the website. I was very interested in the book, but then read some reviews that the book was mainly made of stories by parents, which I like, but for books, I like more research based information. So, I think it's interesting that you also have mixed feelings about it. But, I'm glad they noted that all babies have their own personalities!

  2. Thanks for the book recommendation! I love reading new ideas, and I haven't heard about it. Your son sounds very advanced for a nine-month old!

  3. Amy_YouShallGoOutWithJoyJune 26, 2012 at 9:09 AM

    This makes so much sense, but is not something we really think about much. There's one book I read, The Wonder Weeks (which I have mixed feelings about), that lists various things that babies/toddlers will be able to do at different ages. The thing I really liked about it, though, was that at each stage, they clearly state that, while baby might be developing the ability to do something, the things they *choose* to do are based on their own personality and interests (provided they are given ample opportunities). Reminding us that babies are not just empty vessels, but unique persons driving their own learning and development!

  4. I like you point about learning quickly does not mean learning better- yet another post I'd written in my head about an article I'd read that compared direct instruction on exploratory learning. I think that everything comes down to what your ultimate goals are- not just goals for the immediate lesson/activity.

  5. I am so excited to hear about this research! I thought it a bit funny that Vygotsky's scaffolding was taught and framed as so important during my Montessori training, as to me it seems a bit un-Montessori to place so much focus on the adult's ability to teach a child. Certainly we have a role in helping our children further their learning, but to think that they would never learn certain things without our guidance is just self-important and silly if you ask me. The concept of the Zone of Proximal Development seems to place undue importance on adult help (often more like interference). Learning something more quickly is not the same as learning it better, and so much is lost when we feed children information instead of letting them discover it. But I'm going off on a tangent! I'll just go back to saying thanks for sharing this interesting bit of research!

  6. I used a terrific book by Ella Jackson which totally uses the ideas you mention, in a three-step system that looks like based on the ideas you mention. Respond, Repeat, Expand. It's called "How to Teach Baby to Talk" and the "expand" part is something I haven't read in other parenting books when they talk about baby speech, so your article corresponds really well to the ideas she uses. I've been using the book for nine months, since my little boy was born. At nine months he babbles in big long sentences that sound like a foreign language and an election speech. He also says mama, dada, papa, oo, moo, byebye and when he wants me to read to him, he will point at a book and say "boo". I think this is quite advanced.


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