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Language Development

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Much of children's cognitive development happens "beneath the surface", so to speak. It is subtle and hard to visualize. It is difficult, for instance, to track the development of children's cognitive operations or the expansion of their information processing abilities across time without observing what children do when confronted with specially designed problems and tasks or to having them sit through formal tests of attention and memory. A far more visible expression of children's cognitive development during middle childhood can be found in their ability to use and appreciate increasingly sophisticated forms of language. Commonly, children will master several subtle but powerful communication skills during their middle childhood years.

3D figures with chat bubblesFirst, school-aged children learn how to emphasize or stress certain syllables so as to alter the meaning of words and sentences. This skill enables them to communicate distinctly different messages using the same words. For example a child's request to go to the store could be phrased as a sweet, kind question

"Can we go to the store?"

or as an insistent demand

"Can we GO-O to the store?"

depending on how words within the request are stressed.

Next, children develop meta-linguistic awareness during middle childhood. This skill helps them begin to appreciate that communications can carry multiple layers of meaning at once, beyond just the surface layer and the literal meanings of the basic words that are used. For example, most preschool-aged children think that the saying, "cool as a cucumber" means something is cold to the touch, like a cucumber that's been in the refrigerator. However, as they progress through middle childhood, children begin to realize that the phrase "cool as a cucumber" actually conveys a deeper meaning, suggesting a person who remains calm and collected despite stress. As a result of this increasing appreciation of the sophisticated ways that language is used, children begin to understand and tell more complex jokes, metaphors, and puns and to appreciate sarcasm.

Children's technical communication skills also improve during this period. Children's grasp of grammar improves, enabling them to start using more complex sentence structures in their speech and writing. For instance, children will begin to use the passive voice (e.g., "The cookies were made yesterday") instead of always using the active voice (e.g., "Mom made cookies yesterday"). Children in the middle childhood stage will also start to use infinitive phrases such as "to go to the store," or "to play with the dog" for the first time. As children learn shading (the ability to gradually and logically transition between subjects in a conversation), it becomes easier for others to follow their conversation. Children's tendency to abruptly change the topic of discussion decreases. Children of this age also develop referential communication skills, meaning that they develop the ability to clearly express their own ideas as well as to ask for clarification when they don't understand what other people are saying.

Language development depends upon parallel achievements in areas of children's cognitive and physical abilities. Language production depends on children's mastery of fine motor control over the movements of their lips, tongue, breath, etc. Similarly, mastery of complex language phrasing and sentence construction depends on children's various cognitive abilities, including memory and attention abilities. Delays in these other systems may cause delays in children's language development. Parents who are concerned about their own children's language development should consult with a qualified Speech Therapist.