The relationship between language and motor development in early childhood

Early Childhood Interventions January 14, 2015

Do you know?

  • Sitting posture in infants influences language development?
  • Rhythmic arm movements coincide with reduplicated babbling?
  • Developmental progression of an infant’s use of objects is linked directly to language achievements?
  • Mobility, especially upright mobility, is connected to social communication?

And who said only speech therapists promote language and only PTs and OTs promote motor development???

For most of us, developmental progression in the five primary developmental domains of cognition, communication, motor, adaptive, and social-emotional skills is very important. Most of us think that babies should sit up by 6 months of age, walk by 12 months, and talk by two. Parents, especially, anticipate seeing their babies reach those important milestones. Most people see moving and talking as two very different kinds of skills. Recent research, however, indicates that there is a clear relationship between learning to move and learning to talk. This relationship is more than developmental trajectories. Understanding this relationship may help us, as early interventionists, promote communication, language, and talking by promoting movement.

Various factors contribute to the development of language skills. These include cognition, gender, the environment, and the interaction between the child and primary caregivers. Only recently has attention been paid to the relationship between language and motor development. Research is building to show that movement directly influences the acquisition of language. According to Iverson (2010), three aspects of motor development are particularly influential on language development: posture, locomotion, and object-manipulation. Iverson argues that the acquisition of motor skills provides “infants with an opportunity to practice skills relevant to language acquisition before they are needed for that purpose” (p. 236)

Posture or sitting independently: When a baby can sit alone, his hands are free to reach for objects, explore the attributes of objects, or ask for a hug. Babies exploring objects are developing the concepts of object properties such as weight, texture, size. When spoken to about these properties they are reinforced and the baby links words/sounds to the properties.

In addition to the freeing of hands, when a child is able to sit upright independently there are substantial changes in her rib cage which in turn allow improved respiratory control needed for vocalizing, and positioning of the speech articulators (lip, tongue, teeth, pharynx). When a child sits upright and independently she breathes easily promoting longer utterances and the tongue is positioned forward which allows for the production of consonant-vowel combinations. Sitting independently with upright posture places the baby’s physical speech structures and physiology in an ideal position to promote speech sounds.

Locomotion or walking: When a child stands up and walks around, he gets more chances to interact with others and the environment. For example, most of us appreciate the fact that a child can walk to the adult to show the toy he’s interested in and get the adult’s attention. Independent exploration of the environment also reinforces the concepts of space and time and reinforces the development of joint attention. Walking, even more than crawling, has been linked to more sophisticated social communication. With the child’s development of spatial orientation he understands the components of joint attention indicating that something is not directly with him but where the person is pointing. When children are able to walk their social interactions become more specific, and person directed.

Object-manipulationManipulating a variety of objects provides children with more opportunities for exploration, encouraging them to reach and grasp objects. In addition to exploring properties of objects researchers have linked a child’s ability to pull apart and put together objects to increase in vocabulary. Babies primarily pull things apart during pre-speech but as the child learns to put things together, vocabulary increases, irrespective of chronological age. The physical action of manipulating objects creates a context for attaching meaning and understanding.

Rhythmic Arm Movements: According to Iverson (2010), as infants perform rhythmic arm movements (moving or shaking the arms with certain rhythm), hand banging (banging something with your hands, for example, banging the table) may present an opportunity for practicing the production of rhythmically organized and tightly timed actions. Rhythmic arm movements are organized and tightly timed actions.

Reduplicated babbling is vocalizations consisting of syllable repetition, for example, bababa. These actions are required for reduplicated babbling. Performing rhythmic arm movements such as hand banging provides a supportive context for the development of this skill. Hand banging provides multimodal feedback that allows the infant to observe and vary the relationship between a concrete action and the sounds and visions it makes.

Changes in posture, locomotion, and object-manipulation allow the child to sit up, move around their surroundings, and manipulate objects they are familiar with in new ways. These early experiences provide the infants more exploring and interacting opportunities, physiological stability, social referencing, and contextual attributes which all influence language development, communications, vocalizations, and vocabulary development.

How can we use this information as early interventionists? As an early interventionist, what can we do to better help children develop their language and motor skills? How does this research inform our practice, our intervention, our coaching of families?

There are several strategies that can be embedded in daily routines. The link between motor skills and language development is strong and is more than maturation. Manipulating the context may help to produce vocalizations, social communication, object meaning and understanding.

  1. Children who at about 6 months of age and are still struggling to learn to sit independently may benefit from support, not only to “practice” sitting but to position the lungs, rib cage, and speech articulators in an optimal position for speech production and vocalizations which will in turn enhance the child’s communication skills.
  2. You can display a toy dog or other toys that the baby likes in front of him and keep it out of his reach. Try to make the sound to attract his attention. The baby may be reaching his hands, crawling or walking toward the toy or make an attempt to imitate the sound of the word “dog”. During the interaction, try to make eye contact and keep talking to the baby, encourage the baby and reinforce his intentional behaviors.
  3. Give the child a rattle to manipulate and shake, encourage him to move both his arms. When the baby is engaging in rhythmic banging, he is feeling himself move, seeing the movement of his arms, and hearing the resultant sound, all occurring in synchrony. This kind of rhythmic arm movements will enhance the reduplicated babbling, further promote the language development.

The Iverson article gives us lots of food for thought. What are your ideas? How would you and your teams use this information to help your families?   Read the Iverson article and start a conversation here on TalkEI!

Meng Lyu
East China Normal University

Reference:

Iverson, J. (2010). Developing language in a developing body: the relationship between motor development and language development. Journal of Child Language, 37(2), 229–261.