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According to Moscowitz (2005), social cognition is “the study of mental processes involved in perceiving, attending to, remembering, thinking about, and making sense of the people in our social world” (p. 3). Language is a communication system consisting of grammar, words and sounds. There is a close connection between both language development and the development of social cognition; however, the direction of influence is not fully understood. This essay will argue the extent to which successful language development critically depends on the development of social cognition, with reference to its various components including social learning (imitation and reinforcement), gaze learning and theory of mind. The theories of cognitive development will also be discussed in terms of how they are interlinked with the development of language.


Social learning is a process by which a new behaviour can be acquired through observing others. One component of social learning is imitation, which has found to be play an important role in language development. For example, Fraser et al (1963) found that children’s scores for responding to ten grammatical contrasts were highest when they completed an imitation task involving the repetition of sentence pairs recited by the experimenter. Lovell and Dixon (1967) replicated these findings, suggesting that imitation may be a key driver in the development of language development. However, in these studies the children had been asked to imitate and thus the relationship between spontaneous imitation in a normal environment and language acquisition was not considered. Another form of social learning is reinforcement. Skinner (1957) posits that a child acquires language through positive reinforcement, where a parent tends to reward their child’s vocalisations, such as babbling, by giving the child attention. As a result, the child’s frequency of vocalisation increases. Therefore, he believed that the child would not advance from simple babble to language unless the child’s language behaviour is shaped by the parents. The effect of reinforcement on language development could be enhanced through the use of child-directed speech, as Weisleder and Fernald (2013) found that children who experienced more child-directed speech had wider expressive vocabularies by 2 years of age.


Research on child gaze shifting further reveals a dependence of language development on the development of social cognition. Gaze shifting refers to a child shifting their gaze from people to objects and is one of the earliest social skills an infant can show. Thoermer & Sodian (2001) found that 1 year olds respond to objects cued by adults’ gaze, highlighting the communicative value that eyes have in social interactions well before the development of language. The University of Washington’s I-LABS has demonstrated this through a study where seventeen 10-month old English-speaking infants interacted with Spanish-speaking tutors, who played with toys, read books and talked. The number of instances of eye shifting between the tutor and toys were counted and through the use of an electroencephalography cap, they discovered that the more instances of gaze shifting, the greater their brain response to Spanish-language sounds. This demonstrates how, in a complex natural language learning setting, social behaviours give helpful information to infants. However, as this was a relatively small sample we cannot be certain that the results are generalisable to a wider population of infants. Joint attention is the shared focus of two individuals on an object, which can be achieved by alerting another individual through eye gazing. Numerous longitudinal studies have discovered positive correlations between the amount of joint attention a child engages in and their subsequent vocabulary development (Tomasello & Farrar, 1986; Carpenter el al, 1998; Morales et al, 1998). Therefore, both gaze shifting and joint attention play a crucial role in early world learning, supporting the argument that language development critically depends on the development of social cognition.


However, the degree to which joint attention is necessary for early language learning is lessened through a child’s ability to still learn words without demonstrative joint attention (Rogoff et al. 2003). Furthermore, it is possible for Western-middle class children to acquire words as bystanders, without joint attention. For instance, Akhtar et al (2001) conducted a study on 2-year old children who were randomly assigned to a direct or indirect (‘addressed’ or ‘overhearing’) condition. The direct condition involved the experimenter playing a game directly with the child, introducing a novel word for an unfamiliar object. As the child was a bystander in the indirect condition, the experimenter ignored them and introduced the unknown word to a confederate instead. Later comprehension tests revealed that the novel word was learnt equally well in both conditions. This suggests that a child can in fact learn language without direct interaction and that they can learn words simply by overhearing a third-party conversation. Thus, a mutual engagement may not be needed for early language learning. Nevertheless, it is important to consider that the experimental context may not accurately resemble genuine contexts in which children learn new words. For example, in real-life, natural settings, there are often multiple events or objects which simultaneously compete for a child’s attention. This study fails to examine a child’s performance within the presence of a potentially distracting activity. 


Piaget (1952) and Vygotsky (1962) considered language development as a complex interaction between the child and their environment, which is influenced by the development of social cognition. According to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, during the sensori-motor period from birth to 2 years, children use action schemas such as grasping and reaching to assimilate information about the world. In this period, children’s language is egocentric, meaning the child attributes phenomena with the same feelings as their own. In the pre-operational period (2 to 7 years of age) their mental schemas develop and they are able to accommodate new words and scenarios. Here, they are able to start constructing simple sentences and thinking is still egocentric. Piaget considered the period of concrete operations (7 to 11 years) and the period of formal operations (11 years to adulthood) to mark the beginning of logical thought, reflecting their ability to view things from perspectives that differ to their own. Many characteristics appear in the children’s language, such as commands, questions and answers. Therefore, Piaget’s stages conclude that language development is the product of, and critically depends on, social and cognitive growth.


The extent to which the development of language critically depends on the development of social cognition is reduced through an opposing view of cognitive development. Whilst Piaget believed language development is attributed to social cognitive development, Vygotsky postulates that language is a key driver to allowing the development of rational thought and social interaction. Vygotsky believed that private speech enables a child to accomplish tasks relying on cognitive processing. A study by Lidstone et al (2010) demonstrated the benefits of private and inner speech in planning. 7-10 year old children were assessed on Tower of London task performance and the child is required to plan ahead. The child had to suppress their motor articulation (i.e stopping self-speech) in one condition by repeating the word ”Monday”, whilst the control condition involved repeating a non-verbal action (foot tapping). Performance in the control condition was higher than in the articulatory suppression condition, demonstrating the role of private and inner speech in planning. This therefore suggests that the development of language may not always depend on the development of social cognition, as the direction of influence may be reversed.


Exploring other aspects of social cognition further highlights the dependence that social cognition development has on language development. Theory of mind refers to a child’s ability to interpret their own and other people’s mental states, understanding that they hold beliefs, emotions, desires and intentions that differ from their own. An important component in theory of mind development is having the ability to attribute false belief. This can be demonstrated through using a false belief task (Wimmer & Perner, 1983) to assess a child’s social cognitive ability to attribute false beliefs to other people. A relation between language measures and false-belief understanding has been demonstrated in past studies. For example, Astington and Jenkins (1999) found that theory of mind performance was predicted by early language abilities, but earlier theory of mind was not a predictor of later language test performance. These findings were replicated in a meta-analysis that revealed a moderate to strong correlation (r= .43) from earlier language to later false belief performance (Milligan, Astington & Dack, 2007). Likewise, experimental training studies revealed that false-belief performance was improved by merely exposing a child to systematic training on linguistic tasks (Lohmann & Tomasello, 2003; Sellabona et al, 2013). Furthermore, Moore, Pure and Furrow (1990) discovered that false belief understanding was significantly correlated with a four year olds ability to understand the mental state words ”think”, ”know” and ”believe”. This therefore suggests that a child’s language acquisition plays a key role in their development of a theory of mind. 


The role that language plays in the development of theory of mind has also been evident in studies using atypically developing children. In children with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), language is very often impaired or even absent (Boucher, 2003) and there is a slower development of speech compared to typically developing children. Baron-Cohen, Leslie and Frith (1985) found that autistic children were significantly impaired on false belief tasks. They tested 20 children with ASD on a variation of the Sally-Ann task (Wimmer and Perner, 1983) and reported that 80% of these children failed to appreciate the characters false belief. Furthermore, Happé (1995) reported that children with ASD require a higher verbal mental age to pass false belief tasks than typically developing children. The slower development of language in autistic children could explain the deficit in theory of mind development and further suggests that they are interlinked. This view is reinforced through the language delays in deaf children having a significant impact and delay on their false belief performance even when the tasks are nonverbal (Peterson & Siegal, 2000; Want & Siegal, 2002). This suggests that their success is most likely predicted by their language skills; the weaker their language, the later their false belief understanding develops (de Villiers & de Villiers, 2000). On the contrary, studies have provided evidence for language and theory of mind being separate domains. For example, Siegal and Varley (2006) emphasised cases of aphasic adults who retained their theory of mind abilities despite having severe language impairments. Furthermore, whilst children with specific language impairment (SLI) have lower scores on theory of mind tasks than normally developing children (Nilsson and Lopez, 2016), they perform significantly better than children with ASD on these tasks (Colle, Baron-Cohen and Hill, 2007). This demonstrates that performance on false belief tasks is to some degree independent from language ability, suggesting that in some cases, language and social cognition development may not be as strongly interlinked.


The nativist Noam Chomsky (1976) argued that children have innate language specific cognitive structures that allow them to naturally acquire the structure of language. He believed that the inborn language acquisition device (LAD) encodes the grammatical structures of language into a child’s brain. Therefore, successful language development may in fact depend on the LAD, rather than social cognition.


To conclude, it is clear that there is a strong relationship between language development and social cognitive development. Studies of imitation, reinforcement and gaze shifting reveal a dependence of language development on the development of social cognition. Similarly, Piaget’s theory concludes that language development is the product of cognitive and social growth. However, the extent to which successful language development critically depends on the development of social cognition is reduced through research that suggests that the direction of influence can be reversed. For example, Vygotsky believed that private speech is a significant driver in social and cognitive development. Additionally, research showed that theory of mind performance can be predicted by early language abilities and this influence was reinforced through studies involving deaf and autistic children. At best we can conclude that language development critically depends on certain components of social cognition, as the direction of influence evidently varies across these different aspects.