Developing language in a developing body (summary)


What was the aim of the study? This paper sets out the idea that the motor skills and experiences of infants in the first eighteen months of life are related to language development.

Why was the paper written? The author believes that language development should be viewed within the context of the developing body of an infant. In particular, the author argues that early motor experiences give infants the opportunity to practice skills that contribute to the development of language and communication.

What did the author do? The author reviewed literature on this topic and interpreted findings that support her claim. Importantly, the author did not perform an experiment or collect any new data for this paper. She does NOT claim that motor experiences cause language development in any way: she argues that motor experiences are part of the developmental experiences of an infant who is learning to communicate.

What did the author find? The author provides three examples that motor skills provide infants with the opportunity to practice certain skills before they are applied to language. First, infants engage in rhythmic arm movements such as hand banging around the time that they produce recurring babbling sounds. The tightly timed actions of arm movements may contribute to the development of actions displayed in babbling.

Second, infants learn to act on objects in increasingly sophisticated ways as their first words emerge. Infants first experiences with object manipulation usually involves taking objects apart, but infants then learn to put objects together. This continues with infants learning that their actions can be undone; for example, a bead that is placed inside a cup can then be dumped out of the cup. These skills allow infants to perform combinations of actions that take on increasingly specific meanings according to the context. Attaching mental meanings to specific referents is shared with word learning.

Third, infants display actions called recognitory gestures which show that they understand the specific meaning of an item. For example, an infant may pick up a toy telephone and place it to her ear or pick up a cup and touch it to her lips without drinking. These actions demonstrate that a child understands the specific purpose of the telephone and cup. Development in this area proceeds with infants carrying out these actions in different contexts, from different viewpoints and with substitute objects. By this practice, infants learn that meanings depend on context and that the same meaning may be applied to different objects in different contexts. At this time of motor development, infants use their first words in varied contexts. Thus, the general ability to use symbols which is necessary for language acquisition, may be rooted in motor development.

The author also provides three examples that acquisition motor skills contributes to the development of communication. First, there is evidence that infants' ability to follow the eye gaze of others is related to their experience of crawling. This may be explained by the change in linguistic input that infants receive when they begin independent movement. When infants begin to crawl, they receive language input from a distance source, as adults are apt to distract the infants from potential hazards.

Second, there is evidence that when infants learn to walk, they spend more time handling objects and sharing objects with their caretakers. Walking allows infants to use their hands, move in an efficient way and gain a better vantage point on their environment, and this affects the interactions and objects available to infants to experience.

Third, when infants are able to sit up unsupported, they can produce a variety of sounds that were impossible when lying down. The sitting position allows a free ribcage and better breath control, and this contributes to the increased vocalisations and production of consonant sounds at this stage. Also, mouthing objects can affect infants' familiarity with the sounds that they are able to produce.

In these ways, motor development influences infants' development of language and communication.

Cautions: The author does not argue that motor experiences are necessary or sufficient for language development. That is, the development of language and communication can occur without these typical motor experiences, and many other factors are required for language acquisition in addition to the motor skills reviewed in this paper. Motor skills are just one component that, in typically developing children, participate in language development.

Conclusions: In this paper, the author provides evidence that there is a relationship between development in motor skills and language. Some motor skills, such as arm movements, object manipulation and gestures, give infants the opportunity to practice skills that later contribute to language development. Other motor experiences, such as crawling, walking and sitting, change infants' experiences with their bodies and environments in ways that contribute to language development.

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Added to site August 2013