How do all the people a child interacts with influence her language development?

Children learn language from quality interactions. These valuable moments for language learning can arise from interactions with primary caregivers or a number of other people a child meets.

Time spent with educators at nursery schools or playing with siblings at home can increase the amount of language a child hears or sees. These moments may be ones where a primary caregiver would be too busy to read a book or play make-believe. At first glance, it may seem that another adult may be a good language teacher, but perhaps a child less so, like a sibling. These other children are still learning language, after all! However, it seems that language input from other children may contribute to a young child’s language development. In some communities, most of the language a child hears or sees is from other children. Children who mostly hear or see language from other children and those who mostly hear or see it from adults, both, seem to have similar language development trajectories.

Time spent with all these other people can also increase the variability of language a child hears or sees. Each person has an ever so slightly different way of speaking or signing. They may use different words, prefer different grammatical structures, or pronounce sounds or signs somewhat differently. This variability may seem to make language just harder to learn. Yet, babies who hear language mainly from one person or more appear to learn the sounds of their native language at similar rates.

Beyond pure language performance, interacting with many people can improve a child’s social communicative skills. Social communicative skills are those that underlie successful communication, such as adapting speech to each person or taking turns speaking and listening.

Whether a child grows up hearing language from one or many more people, it is the quality of the interactions that should take center stage. There are many ways to learn language, and there are many people from whom to learn language!

The scientific sources of our comic:

Havron, N., Ramus, F., Heude, B., Forhan, A., Cristia, A., Peyre, H., & EDEN Mother-Child Cohort Study Group. (2019). The effect of older siblings on language development as a function of age difference and sex. Psychological Science, 30(9), 1333-1343.

Bergmann, C., & Cristia, A. (2018). Environmental influences on infants’ native vowel discrimination: The case of talker number in daily life. Infancy, 23(4), 484-501.

Demuth, K. (1992). Acquisition of Sesotho. In The cross-linguistic study of language acquisition (pp. 557-638). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.