There is a strong relationship between language and make-believe play. Both language and symbolic play involve the ability to represent the world mentally to oneself. It is not surprising, therefore, that the developmental patterns of language and play are parallel and that language impairment is related to deficits in symbolic play. In this article, we will examine the ways that play can facilitate children's language development. There is evidence to suggest that the very experience of playing can benefit children's language abilities in a number of ways. Before discussing language play, however, let us look briefly at some of the major components of the human language system.
Aspects of Human Language
Human language consists of several different aspects, each related to the formulation of rules pertaining to a different area of language production. These aspects are the phonological, the syntactic, the semantic, and the pragmatic. The phonological aspects of language are those that pertain to the production of sound. A knowledge of phonology allows a person to pronounce, put together, and properly stress the sound system of a language (Hughes, Noppe, & Noppe, 1988; Menyuk, 1982). For example, when English-speaking people ask a question, they proceed toward the end of the utterance with a steadily rising intonation, whereas this sound pattern would not occur in making a declarative statement. Even toddlers recognize this phonological rule, saying "Ball?" to mean "Is that a ball?" or "Where is the ball?" and at other times saying "Ball!" to mean perhaps "I want the ball." The syntactic aspects of language concern the rules by which words are put together into sentences. For example, in English we typically place the adjective before the noun ("the red hat"), whereas in French the order is usually reversed ("Ie chapeau rouge"). Young children realize, for example, that the order of words in a sentence is changed in a systematic manner when a statement is transformed into a question. For example, "The hat is red" becomes "Is the hat red?" The semantic aspects of language are those that deal with the selection of words that appropriately convey the intended meaning (Menyuk, 1982). A young child may be able to produce words and to put them together correctly in a sentence, for example, but still be unable to convey intended meaning. Three-year-old Laura says, "How far is it to day care?" and her mother answers in terms of the distance from their home to the day-care center. Laura says, "No! How far?" and her mother tries again to describe the distance from one place to the other. The child is frustrated and continues to ask the question because she is not receiving a satisfactory answer. Gradually Laura's mother realizes that the child wants to know when she will be going to the day-care center again. "How far?" referred to time and not to distance. Semantic confusion of this type is a common feature of the conversations of preschool children. Finally, the pragmatic aspects of language refer to the rules that govern the behaviors for engaging in effective communication (Menyuk, 1982). They involve the recognition that the meaning of language depends to some extent on the social context. For example, the facial expressions, gestures, and personality characteristics of the speaker must be taken into account when interpreting speech, as must the features of the social setting. The words "You look wonderful today" convey a very different meaning when spoken by an acquaintance whose opinion is highly valued but who rarely pays a compliment and when spoken by someone who always tells us we look wonderful. Pragmatics also involves the recognition that effective speech must follow certain social conventions. We must take turns in conversation and must recognize when it is acceptable to interrupt another speaker and when we should not do so. We must tailor our speech to the needs of listeners; we speak differently to a child, for example, than we do to an adult, and we may alter our speech when interacting with a foreigner who has limited knowledge of our language.
Types of Language Play
Children play with all four aspects of the human language system (Kuczaj, 1982, 1985). In fact, Garvey (1977, 1984) suggested that there are four different types of language play, roughly corresponding to the different aspects of language discussed above. These are (1) play with sounds and noises, (2) play with linguistic systems, such as those involving word meanings or grammatical constructions, (3) play with rhymes and words, and (4) play with the conventions of speech.
Play with Sounds
As an example of play with sounds and noises, take the spontaneous babbling of the infant in the first year (Athey, 1984; Garvey, 1977); it is an intrinsically motivated and freely chosen activity that lacks external goals, and it appears, at least to an adult eye, to afford the child a good deal of pleasure. How might the sound and noise play of infancy aid in the child's intellectual development? Such play seems to be an important element in the development of language. Even though psychologists no longer believe that adults train children to speak by the use of reinforcements, it is likely that social reinforcement does occur in response to infant babbles. Therefore, parents may unintentionally influence their child to make sounds appropriate to the language they speak. "Da-Da" is more likely to gain a favorable adult reaction than is "Ga-Ga." In that sense, the sound play of the infant may ultimately result in advances in sound production (Athey, 1984). By the end of the first year, infants will produce a variety of playful sounds with their mouths—humming, smacking their lips, bubble blowing, and so forth. Indeed, play with the sounds of language occurs not only during the first two years but can also be round among older children. For example, children at about the age of three or four become fascinated with songs, chants, and rhymes and enjoy producing nonsensical rhyming patterns. And play of this type in older children is related to language development: The ability to rhyme is highly correlated with early reading achievement in children (Athey, 1984). Certain words or sounds may strike preschoolers as being particularly amusing, and they may repeat them until eventually they lose their comic effect. Preschoolers also play with sound by "talking funny" (Garvey, 1977): They distort their voices, attempting to speak in a high-pitched squeak, in a throaty rasping sound, or in the flat monotone of a favorite robot character.
Play with Grammatical Constructions
During the second year of life, when the child is producing one-word utterances and, by 21 months of age, two-word phrases, there is even greater evidence of play with language (Athey, 1984). Toddlers continue to play with sounds and noises, but now they also experiment in their solitary play with the syntactic and semantic elements of language, such as word order and the uses of different parts of speech. For example, they repeat sentences, each time substituting a new word of the same grammatical category: A child might say, "Daddy go out," "Mommy go out," "Baby go out"; again, "Doggie fall down," Kitty fall down," "Baby fall down" (Weir, 1962). They build up and break down sentences (e.g., "Give it to me," "Give the cup to me"), and in doing so they isolate sentence components and come to a better understanding of their functions (Garvey, 1977). They ask questions and then provide the answer themselves. They recite lists of words, numbers, or letters. They engage themselves in conversation. They comment on their own behaviors. It has been suggested that solitary experimental play with the rules of word order may form the basis for the development of the grammatical structures of language (Bruner, 1974; Garvey, 1977, 1984; Ratner & Bruner, 1978). As Garvey (1977, 1984) noted, the private language of the solitary monologue gives children a perfect opportunity to experiment with the elements of speech; the language of social interaction, on the other hand, is goal directed and lacks the element of playfulness found in the solitary monologue. In language play, children can take apart and put together the building blocks of speech in ways that they will not be able to do consciously until the early years of elementary school.
Symbolic Play and Language Comprehension
Symbolic, or make-believe, play can also benefit a child linguistically. As an example, Terry, Jill, and Mark listen to a story being read to them by their kindergarten teacher. Then they are asked to assume the roles of the story characters and to enact the scenes they have just listened to. They do so with great enthusiasm under the gentle direction of their teacher. Later, the teacher asks the children a number of questions about the story, to see how well they understood it and how much they can remember. Is it possible that the story was more understandable to the children and easier to remember because of their experience in acting out the roles? Some psychologists believe so, suggesting that the strength of the language-play connection in early childhood leads to a natural conclusion: Play can help children better understand the spoken word (Williamson & Silvern, 1984). Research on the role of play in language comprehension typically takes the form described above: One group of children listens to a story and then plays out the scenes, while another group either engages in discussion of the story or becomes involved in unrelated activities. Later, the children's memory for details of the story is tested. The finding that emerges repeatedly in studies of this type is that the play group displays the greatest understanding of, and memory for, the story's details (Pellegrini & Galda, 1982; Saltz, Dixon, & Johnson, 1977; Silvern, Williamson, Taylor, Surbeck, & Kelly, 1982; Silvern, Williamson, & Waters, 1982; Williamson & Silvern, 1984). The link between play and language comprehension is not a simple one, however. Children do not have to play out a specific story in order to understand it completely. Many stories are quite understandable to children without the necessity of playing them out dramatically. However, when children regularly engage in the enactment of scenes from the stories they listen to, they seem to improve over time in their ability to draw meaning from spoken language (Williamson & Silvern, 1984).
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