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Language Play and Language Development

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Oct 25, 2010

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.

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