Understanding How Speech and Language Develop

Communication in the early years is the process by which children convey what they want and what they need. It’s how they tell you what they like and what they don’t like! It also enables them to interact socially and to share their understanding and knowledge of the world with other people.

Babies communicate from birth with cries and noises. Prelinguistic communication (i.e., preverbal communication) develops throughout the first year of life with the emergence of gestures, the most notable gesture being pointing. Pointing signals that a child has achieved joint attention (see below). A finger pointing to an object is a child’s way of directing your attention to that object. They may be thinking, “Hey look! A big dog. You see?” or “I want that juice that’s up on the table. I need you to get it for me.” Communication becomes verbal with the emergence of first words, usually heard around the time of a baby’s first birthday.

The Checklist of Communicative Functions and Means is a thorough and efficient way of assessing not only how a child communicates but why they’re communicating, that is, what is their purpose.

Function refers to what we are trying to communicate. We try to communicate our wants and needs, our likes and dislikes. We communicate our emotions and we communicate to find out information and to be social. How we communicate these functions, is known as the means. How do we greet others, comment on a situation, or request objects? We can use both verbal and non-verbal means.

Communicative means are characterized as preverbal/non-verbal and verbal.

Preverbal and Nonverbal Communication:

  • Physical manipulation
  • Giving
  • Pointing
  • Showing
  • Gaze Shift
  • Proximity
  • Head Nod/Head Shake
  • Facial Expression
  • Self-Injury, Aggression, Tantrum
  • Crying/Whining
  • Vocalizing
  • Other: grunting, using the correct prosody but non-specific words (buh buh, a mi mi, dah, yeah)

Verbal Communication:

  • Word approximations
  • Immediate echo
  • Delayed echo
  • Creative one-word utterances
  • Creative multi-word utterances

Now that we understand the various different means of how we communicate, let’s talk about why we communicate.

Communication is used to get what we want or to make sure we don’t get what wedon’t want! We request objects and actions (cookie! more swing!) and we also reject and protest (no!). These functions demonstrate behavioral regulation.

We also like to make social overtures to interact with those around us. Pragmaticdevelopment, the way we use communication, preverbal/non-verbal or verbal, is essential to becoming an effective communicator. Social Interaction consists of requesting social routines (“eat din din”), requesting comfort (“help me”), greeting (waving), calling (“hey!”), requesting permission (looking expectantly at mom), and showing off (singing a song).

Finally, the function of Joint Attention is a crucial communicative function. In order to comment, request information, or provide information to others, we first need to have the desire to do this. Joint attention is defined as the process of sharing one’s experience of observing an object or event with another person. We know that the other person is sharing this experience with us because we are following each other’s gaze and/or pointing gesture towards that object or event. A person who lacks joint attention is not able to take the perspective of another person. Joint attention is critical for cognitive and intellectual development, language acquisition, and social development.

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