American Academy of Pediatrics November 1998, VOLUME 102 / ISSUE Supplement E1 (Click here for extensive list of articles on child development)
Language Development and Emotional Expression
Excerpt: The relation of language and emotion in development is most often thought about in terms of how language describes emotional experiences with words that name different feelings. Not surprisingly, therefore, developmental studies of emotion and language typically have described how children acquire emotion labels, such as “mad,” “happy,” “scared.”1–3 However, children typically do not begin to use these words until language development is well underway, at approximately 2 years of age. Other studies have described how caregivers use emotion words when talking to their infants in the first year. Caregivers are very good, almost from the beginning, at attributing particular emotions to a young infant’s cries, whines, whimpers, smiles, and laughs, for example, “what a happy baby,” “don’t be so sad,” “are you angry?”4,,5 However, once infants begin to learn language, mothers are far less likely to name a child’s emotion than to talk about the situations and reasons for the child’s feelings and what might be done about them.6,,7
This research emphasis on the words that name emotions has at least these two limitations. First, the number of emotion words in the dictionary is small —at most, a few dozen terms for emotions and feeling states—compared with the enormous number of names in a dictionary for objects and actions. Second, the emotional expressions of infants and young children generally are transparent in their emotional meaning. Thus, the label for an emotion is very often redundant with its expression and adds no new information. Given the relatively small number of words for naming feelings and emotions, and the redundancy between emotion words and the expressions they name, understanding how emotion and language are related in early development requires looking beyond just acquisition of specific emotion words.
STUDYING LANGUAGE ACQUISITION IN ITS DEVELOPMENTAL CONTEXT
The core of development that brings an infant to the threshold of language in the second year of life is the convergence of emotion, cognition, and social connectedness to other persons.8,,9 Children learn language initially because they strive to connect with other persons to share what they are feeling and thinking. When language begins toward the end of the first year, infants have had a year of learning about the world. The results of their cognitive developments have given children contents of mind—beliefs, desires, and feelings—that have to be expressed because they are increasingly elaborated and discrepant from what other persons can see and hear in the context. Language expresses and articulates the elements, roles, and relationships in mental meanings in a way that a child’s smiles, cries, frowns, and whines cannot. Language, then, emerges in the second year out of a nexus of developments in emotion, social connectedness, and cognition.
For the past 10 years, I have been studying how language comes together with the cognitive, emotional, and social developments of the first 3 years of life,8 with the basic assumption that language acquisition is tied to other developments in a child’s life. The knowledge we set out to explain was language: how children learn words in the second year and then learn to combine words for phrases and simple sentences in the beginning of the third year. Early words are fragile, imprecise, and emerge tentatively at the same time that emotional expressions are robust, frequent, and fully functional. We asked, therefore, how these two systems of expression—emotion and language—come together in the second year of a child’s development. We looked at both the content of developments in emotional expression and language as well as at the process of their interaction.
The model of development that guided our research (Fig 1) built on the link between two well-known concepts in psychology: engagement and effort. Knowledge of language is represented here by the tripartite model of language that Peg Lahey and I introduced 20 years ago. Linguistic form—sounds, words, and syntax—is only part of language, albeit the part that attracts the most attention. Form necessarily interacts with content, or meaning, because language is always about something. And form and content interact with the pragmatics of language use: language is used in different situations, for different purposes and functions. Only one or the other of these components, notably form alone, cannot by itself be a language. Rather, language is, necessarily, the convergence of content, form, and use.10
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Many questions about the complex developmental relationship between language and emotion remain for additional research, but our findings provide some insight into the effort and engagement required by both language learning and emotional expression. We propose that the heart of language acquisition is in the dialectic tension between the two psychological components of effort and engagement (Fig 1).
To begin with, a language will never be acquired without engagement in a world of persons, objects, and events—the world that language is about and in which language is used. The concept of engagement embraces the social, affective, and emotional factors that figure into language learning. Other persons and the social context are required, because the motivation for learning a language is to express and interpret contents of mind so that child and others can share what each is thinking and feeling (the principle of discrepancy).
Affect and emotional expression are required for establishing inter-subjectivity and sharing between child and caregiver before language and also for motivating a child’s attention and involvement with people, objects, and events for learning language. The relevance of adult behavior is ensured when adults tune into what a child is feeling and thinking.
Asperger comment: If the caregiver is ONLY INTERESTED in his or her own expectations of what “ought to be” going on in the child’s mind, and rejects or ignores what the the child is feeling and thinking, then this “motivation” for learning and using language may be blunted or severely damaged.
Language is learned when the words a child hears are about the objects of engagement, interest, and feelings—about what the child has in mind (the principle of relevance). In turn, children use the language they are learning for talking about the things they care about—the objects of their engagement.
Asperger comment: Ridiculing an ASD or Asperger child’s interests, which is what happens consistently (the train schedule cliché); cutting the child off in conversation, and angry responses to “stupid topics that no one wants to hear about” guarantees feelings of shame, rejection and withdrawal from social interaction.
Acquiring language requires effort, first, for setting up the meanings consciousness that language expresses or that results from interpreting the expressions of others. Second, additional effort is required for learning the increasingly complex language needed to express and articulate the increasingly elaborated mental meanings that are made possible by developments in cognition (the principle of elaboration). And third, effort also is required for coordinating different kinds of behaviors—such as talking, expressing emotion, and playing with objects (as described by Bloom and associates11)—that make up the ordinary activities of a young child’s life. Neither speech nor emotional expression occurs in isolation; they are always and necessarily embedded in complex events.
In summary, language and emotion are related in complex ways in the process of development. Language is created by a child in the dynamic contexts and circumstances that make up the child’s world, and acquiring a language requires both engagement and effort. A child’s feelings and emotions are central to engagement with the personal and physical world and determine the relevance of language for learning. And the effect of the effort needed to coordinate cognitive, emotional, and linguistic resources for learning language is to recruit states of neutral affect for attention and processing. Children who began to learn words early spent more time in neutral affect (the Asperger “Little Professor” label?), whereas children who learned words somewhat later expressed more emotion instead. Effort also was apparent in the timing relation of speech and emotional expression at the transition to sentences, especially for the later language learners.
By the time language begins, toward the end of the first year, emotional expression already is well-established and children do not need to learn the names of the emotions to tell other people what they are feeling. But they do need to learn the language to tell other people what their feelings are.
Asperger comment: However, the constant “indoctrination” as to which feelings are socially approved, and which are socially forbidden, denies the child expression of “negative” emotion – expression that is necessary if children are to learn how to “deal with” inevitable feelings of anger, frustration and discord between people. This is especially true for male children and developmentally diverse children, who are literally “shut down” by adult disapproval of their interests and feelings.
Language does not replace emotional expression. Rather, children learn language for expressing and articulating the objects and circumstances of their emotional experiences while they continue to express emotion with displays of positive and negative affective tone.
American “emotional intelligence” never gets past this judgmental social view of emotion! Americans are so consumed by the “power” of words, that we honestly believe that banning the use of “bad words” magically turns anger into love and racism into equality. This is the root of politically correct policing of language. All it does is prevent any serious discussion about conditions that very much need serious discussion.
If only we taught children that emotions are fleeting physical reactions – and that rather than banning socially proscribed emotions, this “stop and think” step below, which can be learned, is a path to emotional maturity. Children need to understand our ability to choose how to handle all types of emotion. But! Americans are addicted to anger, rage and violence…