Communicative Development

We're asking the question "How is the communicative function of language related to language development".

Children are not communicative from birth - initially they emit signals as automatic responses to internal states (i.e. crying, sneezing, yawning). Communication is taking place, but is *the child* communicating (on a conscious level, anyway)?

Phases in Child Communication Development

Bases et al. in 1975 described the three phases as:

  • Perlocutionary - the effect of performing an utterance (someone does or thinks something).
  • Illocutionary - the intention behind performing an utterance (asking a question, etc)
  • Locutionary - performing an utterance.

We say that they are not locutionary if they are non-verbal (i.e. pointing, rather than words).

Speech Act Theory

J L Austin built upon this and came up with Speech Act Theory in 1962 - a theory that describes his class of utterances, the performative utterance. These can be neither true nor false, only happy or unhappy (i.e. if someone promises something and breaks that promise it is not false, only unhappy). Performative utterances are those that do not just describe a reality, they modify it.

E.g. "I name this ship 'Beth'" - is not describing something passively, but is concretely changing something about the world.

Perlocutionary Phase

Initially, whilst children's behaviour has an effect on a listener, it is not intended to communicate to them.
E.g. A child says 'bottle' in frustration whilst trying to reach it, and the mother passes it to her. If the child never acknowledges the mother's presence, is there intent to communicate?

Joint Attention

Children tend to progress from the perlocutionary phase to the illocutionary phase around 9-15 months, when they start to develop join attention (i.e. both focussing on the same thing, or looking at an object together).

Illocutionary Phase

Children eventually become aware that their behaviour can be used for communication - they start to use proto-imperatives (or to point), and acting to get the parent's attention.

These have a perlocutionary force, and are done illocutionarily, but have no linguistic content, and hence no locutionary force.

Locutionary Phase

When they reach this period children have started to use language referentially for communicative purposes.


Whilst non-verbal, children develop gesturing or pointing or signing to express a concept. It's considered to be the beginning of symbolic communication because of how some gestures become conventionalised (used to mean the same thing in a situation/context that differs from the first instance).

Some people believe that gesture+word combinations can predict the age at which two-word combinations, and what type of proto-grammatical combinations they are, will be produced. This is not accepted fully.

What is known is that children's gestures elicit speech from others, and is hence a way for them to communicate and increase their developing language abilities, before they themselves have language.

Language for Communication?

Many researchers claim that language is developed for communicative purposes.


  • Isolated children do not invent language
  • Language leads on from gesturing, which is done for communication.


  • Communicative skill != language skill (younger siblings may enter/sustain conversations better than older siblings, even though they have less language skills)
  • Children acquire complex grammatical constructions not important for communication.
  • Communicative interaction is the main input children have; biases results, perhaps.
  • Communication may be needed as a trigger function, but does not affect manner of functioning

Joint Attention and Language Development

There is some evidence that the focus of attention is related to early vocabulary acquisition, and that joint may assist the mapping of phonology to semantics. For instance impairment of joint attention skills and impairment of language production often occur together in autistic children.

One claim is that joint attention itself is irrelevant, but it provides additional interaction, which is the boost in language development. These things are unknown.

Counter-argument: Other Cultures

Elinor Ochs found that baby speak was not universal, and children who grew up in a culture without it, where they were forced to acquire language from overheard speech, tend to be quite good at tuning in to background conversations.

Pragmatic Mapping

Pragmatic mapping is the process by which an abstract symbol (e.g. word) comes to be associated with a logical object (E.g. person, concept, etc).

Pragmatic Boostrapping

Pragmatic boostrapping is the theory that children use communicative interactions as way of getting themselves into language - so form-function correspondences between communication and language features exist and are utilised in acquiring language.

This is contested highly, and there is insufficient evidence to show that even if the first claim is true, that this would account for the acquisition of grammar.

Adult Grammatical System and Pragmatics

There is a claim that even adult grammatical systems are pragmatically based, and that words are social conventions learnt by understanding the communicative intents of the speaker. This is, also, contended.

Communication Separate to Language

Chomsky believes that language is a formal, arbitrary system, intrinsically separate from communication.

Basic Pragmatic Development

Communicative but pre-locutionary utterances/actions:



Ability to refer to past events is the beginning of narrative skill, which mos children get to sometime after 24 months.

Learning Conversation

Children learn to stretch speech out for longer than a single utterance, and to take part in two(+) people talking. They learn that turn-taking and co-operativeness are the essential elements in a conversation.

Grice's Maxims for Conversation

Mastering these is the most important part of mastering communcative competence:

  • Quantity: Make your contribution as informative as is required; provide neither too much nor too little information.
  • Quality: Try to make your contribution one that is true; do not say what you believe to be false or that for which you lack adequate evidence.
  • Relation: Be relevant.
  • Manner: Be perspicuous (i.e. be clear—brief, orderly, unambiguous).

Child-Child vs Child-Adult Conversations

Children talk to each other in collective monologues; they take turns speaking, but what they're saying isn't connected to what was previously said - they each are voicing their own thoughts and stories with little care for whether the other person listens or not.

This is termed the egocentric period by Piaget; children do not have the mental ability to understand that other people know different things to them, and have different points of view.

Children do not talk to younger children in the same ways that adults do.
Child addressing younger child is more directive, uses more attention-getting devices and repetitions, a lower frequency of questions, and less of an attention-focussed attitude towards the child, as compared to an adult talking to the same child.

Adult-child conversations tend to be more focussed, as the adult listens to the child and keeps conversation on-topic, and the child adapts their conversation to the better listener accordingly.

Private Speech/Language Play

Children often talk to themselves at night before sleeping, telling stories or playing with words to practice at language. It's viewed as being done for behavioural self-guidance; cognitive skills develop in interaction before become internalised, so private speech is an intermediary level before self-talking is internalised.

Vgotsky studied this, and he believes that children aren't properly conversational because they're doing something else with their speech, as opposed to Piaget who believes that children lack the ability/interest to be truly conversational.


Children understand that they are supposed to respond to utterances, but this doesn't mean they linguistically understand the sentence; sometimes they just respond with a set action anytime they hear a specific content word.

They're said to be 'outperforming their competence'

Repairing Miscommunication

Children are good at repairing miscommunication; they persevere in getting their message across, whether by action or repetition or revision.

Conversation Starting

From about 1.5 years children can initiate topics about intangible or absent things, and by the age of 2 children can hold a sensible conversation that stays relevant. At this age they find it easier to initiate topics rather than just respond.

Adult Scaffolding of Narratives

Children start presenting narratives prompted by adult questioning and shaping of the story. Initially they present information about an event mixed in with information typical of a general event of that sort (a cake at a birthday party when the party they were at had cupcakes, etc), before eventually progressing to including specific information.

Children don't master tense or clear use of referential devices until 5, and as such younger narratives often do not make sense to outside observers.

Sociolinguistic Development

Event telegraphic (two or three words) speakers know multiple ways/forms to make a request:

  • (state goal) More juice
  • (direct imperative) Book read
  • (state the problem that needs solution) Carol hungry

Later on they learn to phrase proper questions.


Children can use these different forms to select an appropriate one from their repertoire when talking to different people (i.e. they switch registers for politeness):
Example of a 2 year old girl:

  • Simple imperatives when talking to other 2-year olds at pre‐school
  • Modified imperatives using please when talking to 3-year olds and
  • Questions when making requests to 4‐year olds
  • Desire statements or questions when talking to


  • At home, more direct when talking to mother than father.



In English, politeness is very correlated with directness (deference v s directness), but this isn't the case with every language. Very young children learn how to manipulate their register when asked to be 'nicer', or speaking to older audiences.

Communicative Intent - Innate or Experience

It is difficult to untangle the effects of a responsive environment on the development of communicative intentions from the effects of a linguistically rich environment on the development of a means to express communicative intentions.

As such, both innate characteristics of children, and their experiences with other communicators, must be said to influence the emergence and increasing expression of communicative intent. Essentially, we don't know which is important and can't answer our initial question.

Cognitive Development and Conversational Skills

One thing that does limit conversational skills is cognitive development; this doesn't affect linguistic ability, but as conversation is a cognitive task that requires an ability to meet different simultaneous demands, this is affected by a processing capacity and an efficiency in using it.

Discourse - what is required

Children tend to learn what circumstances require of them; they produce similar narrative styles to their parents, and younger siblings tend to be more communicatively developed than first born children (navigating conversations with more participants).