Babies learn the art of conversation before they can even speak

We have long thought about the processes by which children acquire their mother tongue. If all goes well, this acquisition occurs at a dizzying pace given the extraordinary complexity that language and its use in our social interactions represent.

Within child development, the period covered by these studies has long started with the emergence of the first words, on average about 12 months after birth. But we now know that language acquisition begins much earlier. From the 20th week of pregnancy, the fetus’ auditory system enables it to hear the voice of its mother and those around it, as well as to become familiar with the phonetic form of its mother tongue, especially the melody.

During the first year of life, major changes take place in the way babies perceive speech sounds. They are characterized by an early specialization of the processing system on the sounds of the mother tongue compared to those of other languages.

Long before it utters its first words, the baby engages in multiple interactions with those around it that invoke voice, gaze, facial expressions, gestures, and whose temporal orchestration bears striking similarities to adult oral conversation.

Before words, therefore, the primary support for language acquisition is formed by the conversational exchange, or what anticipates it in the baby, which is called protoconversation. While language was initially seen as a symbolic computational system implemented in the brain of each individual, many researchers today emphasize the large role of social interactions in which language is formed in the brain. Then it is the dyadcomposed of the baby and the person who interacts with him, who becomes our primary analytical framework for the study of language acquisition, rather than the individual.

Social interactions at the heart of language acquisition

Research shows that language learning is much more effective when language information is presented to the child in a conversational interaction, rather than in a distant, non-reactive manner (e.g., through television).

This is true even at the lowest levels of the language system, such as phonemes (the units of sounds that make up words). For example, Patricia Kuhl and her colleagues conducted an experiment comparing two groups of children (9 to 10 months old) whose first language was English. The first group of children engaged in a 25-minute social interaction with a Mandarin-speaking person for 12 sessions. The second group was exposed to an equivalent length of audio or audiovisual recordings in Mandarin, but without interpersonal interaction. The researchers found that only the first group was able to develop a sensitivity to phonemic distinctions in Mandarin.

Pointing is a form of conversation.
Mutzii/Unsplash, CC BY

When children recognize the socially shared aspect of meaning, they begin not only to observe how adults use language, but also to initiate social interactions to solicit that adult’s knowledge. For example, they follow her gaze, refer to her when unsure, and use gestures (if not words) to draw her attention.

Parents usually respond appropriately to these requests. In fact, there is a large body of scientific literature showing that parental reactions/responses, adapted/contingent to children’s initiatives, facilitate language acquisition.

For example, when the child points their hand at an object, the adult’s response to name or explain the function of that object is more likely to lead to the child’s learning. This dynamic creates a virtuous cycle for language acquisition: adaptive responses from parents improve children’s language skills, which in turn creates opportunities for richer conversational exchanges, and so on.

Listening makes sense

Some researchers believe that children also learn language because adults control how children speak and rephrase sentences where children make mistakes.

These reformulations would help children to refine their language skills at the phonological form level as well as at the lexicon and grammar levels. As in the case of the adjusted responses discussed, the restatements attest to the importance of conversational interaction in acquisition.

Language acquisition is therefore greatly facilitated by adults who act as real interlocutors, constantly giving feedback on what is happening, on the children’s spoken words (both formal and substantive), submitting, questioning, reformulating, evaluating, etc. These proactive Parental listening skills are not only found to be crucial for children to enable them to progress as speaking subjects, but it is also essential for becoming an interacting subject.

Discover the orchestration of the conversation

And yet when it’s actually in dialogue, in communication, can we really say that the child is talking? A good command of phonology, syntax, the organization of idioms, certainly essential, is it enough to build and maintain a conversation?

Many studies of inter-individual interactions agree that conversation is a collaborative activity whose success requires the participation and collaboration of all participants. Discussing with someone is not limited to planning and speaking up, but requires coordination. This coordination is about the joint development of a common basis (“Common Ground”), combined with the knowledge and common convictions that the participants develop together and to which they align themselves exactly.

Each contribution is part of an underlying process (common ground development, known as “grounding”) that relates to the development and ongoing updating of this common fund; Each contribution must be recognized and understood by the interlocutor, who can then react to it in the best possible way. A conversation thus consists of successive, incremental additions of one and the other participant.

Many linguistic markings (including repetitions, reformulations, requests for clarification, but also items such as “mh”, “agree”, “that’s great”, “nod”, etc., which represent “answers from the interlocutor”, so-called feedback) enable this Interlocutors to show each other almost constantly what they are doing, if they understand each other, which course of the conversation they want to take, if they agree to it. Whatever term is used, these pacts or assimilations between individuals enable the progressiveness of the interaction and the successful implementation of the latter. The feedback responses play a critical role in this coordination and common ground development process. But what about children?

Let the other person know that you are listening

In general, there are very few studies (at least compared to the scientific literature on language structure acquisition) on how (meta)language features – which help to better coordinate a conversation – develop in childhood. However, from what we have, we conclude that very early on, children have a strong desire to understand and be understood.

For example, researchers have followed the evolution of the mechanism for detecting and correcting misunderstandings in the same child between the ages of 1 and 4 years. They found that the child listens for signs of misunderstanding (e.g. asking questions for clarification) very early on and can resolve the misunderstanding by providing relevant details. Immediately afterwards, the child no longer limits himself to correcting himself, he also corrects the interlocutor if he does what the child perceives as an incongruity or a mistake. Finally, around the age of 3, the child begins to explicitly ask for clarification when he perceives a contradiction in the words or behavior of the interlocutor.

Regarding verbal (“mh”) or non-verbal (“nod”) feedback, learning generally takes longer and becomes more refined by adolescence. We note a dissociation between the ability to understand this mechanism when generated by the interlocutor, on the one hand, and the ability to generate appropriate feedback, on the other. The first skill is observed from the age of 4 and helps, for example, to improve the children’s storytelling quality. The second skill, on the other hand, is more difficult. Research shows that children between the ages of 7 and 12 continue to learn how to use speaker signals to generate feedback in appropriate ways.

The prolonged development of feedback—particularly related to production—may be because it requires the ability to take the listener’s perspective, a skill that develops well into adolescence. When the child is in a listening position, he must understand the interlocutor’s need to be understood and therefore to receive constant feedback, not only when there is potential for misunderstanding, but also when communication seems to be working well.

Talking about coordination: a complex path

The principles of conversation that make it possible to control its structural organization are essential but not sufficient to make the interaction successful. Conversations cannot be reduced to alternating turns. What seems to be emerging, therefore, is that babies are able to coordinate with adults on a temporal basis by relying on cues that allow them to predict the moment when they may “turn” (parameters are probably very important since we know that prosody, which concerns the melodic and rhythmic aspects of speech, is one of the dimensions acquired very early).

On the other hand, coordinating or aligning at a more elaborate level (level of representations), which requires considering the other and their thoughts, understanding what actions the statements produced relate to, telling a story, understanding the source and the perspective (from which we speak) (what many authors call theory of mind) and explicitly show that we have this capacity (in particular to be a good “interlocutor” who helps to promote the joint activity of the conversation by for example, it returns appropriate answers – feedback – is acquired much later.

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