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Research at the Centre

An adult smiling at a child

Children's developing communicative competence and its relation to their growing social-cognitive understanding

For over 20 years, research at the Centre has been exploring young children's  developing communicative competence (their use of language, or the pragmatics of language as it is sometimes referred to more formally). We are especially interested in the communicative competence of 1- to 4-year-old children in very everyday settings such as talk between parents and children during everyday activities at home, telling and iistening to picture-book stories, peer conversation, and talk while playing. We also focus on exploring how children's communicative competence is impacted by their growing abilities to understand their own and other people's differing viewpoints with respect to what they may know, think, like, feel - in effect, their growing understanding of their own and other's mental states and perspectives. This is the intersection between children's growing communicative and social cognitive understanding. 

As an example of a pragmatic language ability in which perspective-taking plays a role, consider that whenever we communicate with others we make adjustments to reflect what we think our listeners know or don't know. If we did not do so, our communicative attempts would not be very successful. 

In one of Dr. O'Neill's earliest studies as a graduate student, she looked at how children as young as two years of age are already adapting their communication (their words and gestures) to take into account what their mother might know or not know. She found that 2-year-olds were more likely to tell their mother the location of a hidden object if she had left the room while it was hidden, than if she had stayed inside the room and had seen where it was hidden. In other words, 2-year-olds were taking into account whether their mom had seen the hiding of the toy or not, and adapting their communication accordingly! This is something researchers previously thought only much older children could do.

This type of perspective-taking that was observed in two-year-old children is actually part of an emerging understanding of the mind and mental states such as "knowing" or "thinking" that will continue to develop throughout the preschool years, and be reflected in what they talk about,  as children come to better understand the origins of their own knowledge, to understand how changes in their own knowledge may occur (e.g., "I thought it was a cloud, but now I think it might be smoke."), to explain and predict the actions of others (e.g., "She thinks it's under the couch, so she's looking there."), and to think and talk about themselves and other people from different perspectives in time such as the past, present, and future. 

A major product of the Centre's research is the Language Use Inventory (LUI), a standardized parent-report tool to measure pragmatic language development in children 18 to 47 months of age. It is used in Canada, and internationally, by speech-language pathologists and child language researchers. The LUI provides a very much needed, empirically validated and normed questionnaire for speech-language pathologists, health professionals, clinicians and researchers to determine whether a child is delayed with respect to their use of language relative to their peers of the same age in months.(It is available commercially to professionals at LanguageUseInventory.com.)

Among children older than 4 years of age, our studies have explored the kinds of perspective-taking and abstraction involved in early storytelling and story comprehension, such as the construction of mental models of the narrative, and how such abilities may be related to other domains of thinking, such as mathematics, abstraction and reading comprehension. 

The Centre and Daniela O'Neill gratefully acknowledge funding received from the following sources in support of research conducted by its members: