How Do Babies Learn To Communicate Before They Can Talk?

On average, children say their first word at around twelve months of age, with a range of eight to eighteen months (Berk, 2000). Nevertheless, preceding this is a period of communicative development which has led to an array of research (Keenan, 2002). Research into the phenomenon of language acquisition is grounded on the assumptions that communication is useful for all animals living in social groups, primate communication is adaptable rather than a fixed pattern and that change from infancy to adulthood requires an advanced capacity for learning.

The preverbal period of infant development is hypothesised to last from birth to approximately one year, and it is primarily nonverbal communication that takes place in this period which sets the stage for language development and is characterised by the development of early communicative and cognitive abilities (Berk, 2000). These include the development of attention, gestures, gaze, turn-taking, causality, intentionality, relating to objects and the development of vocal patterns, for instance, babbling (Fogel, 1993) and, crucially, the experiencing joint attention with a social partner, which often speeds up language development (Berk, 2000). For the purpose of brevity the current piece will focus on the roles of gestures and early vocalisations to illustrate how babies learn to communicate before they can talk.

Research into pre-verbal communication centres around the question of how infants learn to monitor the behaviour of others through the voice, facial expressions and gestures, leading to the ability to read the intentions of others. Some of the challenges of this type of social referencing require that infants note changes in expression, as well as the nature and intensity of the expression, how this reflects internal mental states, and where the attention of another is directed (Keenan, 2002). This period of pre-verbal communication is mainly measured by assessing how much a baby or young child pays attention to the voices and faces of those people around them, most often the primary care-giver (Lock, 1999).

Fogel (1993) has illustrated the ways that infants’ first communicative exchanges take place with their parents. According to Fogel (1993) parents and infants often engage in a kind of dialogue which includes sounds, movement, touch and facial expressions (Fogel, 1993). Though in reply to this hypothesis Schaffer (1996) argued that these ‘conversations’ are not really an interaction but under the control of the parent.

Nonetheless, Schaffer (1996) concedes that these interactions are important lessons in the acquisition of communication abilities (Schaffer, 1996). Meltzoff and Moore (1989) contend that this skilled perception of emotional expression means that infants can imitate facial expressions (Meltzoff, Moore, 1989). While other researchers assert that as a result of these kinds of interfaces infants learn to distinguish emotional expression (Ludemann & Nelson, 1988) and react appropriately (Nelson, Greundel, 1981). In support of these conclusions visual cliff studies show twelve month old infants will not venture over the cliff when mothers show fear though they will crawl over the cliff when mothers smile and encourage them (Campos, Bertenthal, 1988).

One the tools that are available to the infant are the use of gestures as a method of communication, and before the end of their first year infants refer to objects by pointing (Keenan, 2002). Vygotsky (1978) asserts that pointing a finger begins as a meaningless grasping motion; however, as people react to the gesture, it becomes a movement that has meaning. According to Vygotsky (1978), the pointing gesture represents an interpersonal connection between individuals (Vygotsky, 1978). Pointing gestures are communicative in that they are employed to influence the behaviour of the person they are attempting to gesture to, and these pointing behaviours take two forms (Bates, 1976).

Protodeclarative pointing occurs when the infant uses pointing gestures to bring to attention of another a certain object. For instance, an infant may point to or hold up an object, while monitoring the recipients’ behaviour to see if they have seen the object. Another gesture utilised by infants is protoimperative pointing, this is a tool that instructs others to do something for them, for example to pass an object that is out of their reach (Keenan, 2002).

An important process that also contributes to the development of communication is the understanding of another persons meaning (Berk, 2000). Appreciating the intentions of someone else is seen as crucial to the development of an infant’s perception of the world around him (Keenan, 2002). Wellman (1990) claims that in the first year infants tend to understand that other people usually act purposefully and they also learn that much of human behaviour is motivated by desires and beliefs in stages of the developmental process (Wellman, 1990).

It has been hypothesised that there are sub-stages within the Preverbal Period of communication development (Keenan, 2002). It has been suggested that the first sub-stage occurs at approximately two months when infants begin to engage in communicative acts with adults at a basic level, for instance through holding a gaze. The next sub-stage takes place at approximately five months, and is characterised by non-purposeful nonverbal communicative acts.

At this time the infant explores the environment and learns to relate to objects and people. The infant does not intentionally communicate, though the adult may treat the infant’s behaviour as though they are attempting to communicate. A third sub-stage occurs between approximately eight and twelve months, and is characterised by purposeful non-verbal communicative acts. During this period the infant gains more control over vocalising, gesturing, attending, relating to objects and people, turn taking, gaze direction and intentionality (Keenan, 2002). A study by Acredolo and Goodwyn (1990) found that preverbal development further improves with gestural communication occurring at approximately nine months old when babies try to communicate with others about things, pointing begins to represent or stand for things that they want to communicate (Acredolo, Goodwyn, 1990).

In other words, these behaviours are said to mark the beginning of intentional communication (Keenan, 2002). The infant now seems to communicate ideas through a variety of purposeful gestures and vocalisations (Acredolo, Goodwyn, 1990, Lock, 1999, Berk, 2000, Keenan, 2002). Furthermore, the onset of communicative pointing correlates with measures of comprehension and production of language, and other gestures used in the first year include reaching. Showing, giving, all gone, and pick me up, amongst others (Keenan, 2002).

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