How Do Social Experiences Influence Language Development?

By Damon Verial
The culture in which you grow presents you with a collection of characteristic social experiences that can shape how you speak.
The culture in which you grow presents you with a collection of characteristic social experiences that can shape how you speak.

Language development often seems like a natural, innate process. But much of what guides a child’s language use lies in the social context. Social experiences teach children what types of speech patterns are useful, how to pronounce new words and what subjects are off-topic. Through childhood experiences, a person develops a remarkably stable speech style.

Influence: What is Everyone Talking About?

Part of why we say what we say lies in social influence. Children pay attention to what their peers and the adults in their lives speak about. From the context of those around him, a child learns of certain speech patterns and interest-grabbing topics. Though this might seem obvious to many parents, the social experiences of a child shape the speech patterns of a child. Developmental psychologist and linguist Erika Hoff, author of the book “Language Development,” mentions how two groups with different social experiences, white children and African-American children, habitually speak in different ways; though these two groups learn the same language, their choice of topics and focus on these topics are correlated with their racial communities. Children who grow up in white communities tend to speak with laser-like focus on a single topic, returning to the subject at hand when straying. Children who grow up in African-American communities tend to converse using stories and anecdotes, depreciating the topic as a general focus around which to build their stories.

Vocabulary: Why Do We Speak Differently?

In today’s world, the mainstream culture is slowly dissolving. In its place come a number of niche cultures, or subcultures. Each of these cultures has its own set of vocabulary that allows its group members to self-identify through using culture-specific words. For example, children who spend much of their social time with the anime-loving crowd might integrate some simple Japanese phrases into their daily speech, using words such as “kawaii” and “baka” to replace English words such as “cute” and “stupid.” In this way, they can demonstrate their familiarity with the culture and identify their group membership.

Accent: What Do You Mean by “Ya’ll?”

Two children using the same English textbook in two different parts of the world might pronounce the same word differently, despite the text outlining a standard pronunciation for the word. The reason cannot possibly stem from the education system because that would imply that teachers in certain areas are purposely teaching against the book. The true root cause lies in the differing social worlds around different children. Accents are rooted in culture and trace back to generations ago. Children are more likely to copy the pronunciation of their parents and peers than the pronunciation of guides and texts that come from a place that holds no bearing on the child’s social world. However, this influence tends to be short-lasting, only prevalent during childhood, as evident by an adult moving cross-country but maintaining his original accent.

Negative Feedback: When Should I Close My Mouth?

Negative social experiences give children the feedback they need to moderate their speech and adapt to their social circle. This is true no matter how large the social circle. Just as American cartoons might be taboo to the anime group at school, the subject of religion might be taboo in scientific discussions. Likewise, local culture has some say in shaping what kids are willing to say. American culture teaches children that questions about salary and religion tend to be off-topic when meeting strangers. But this is not true for Taiwanese culture, which welcomes questions about salary and religion but prohibits topics that might be normal speech-fodder in the U.S., such as politics. When a child receives social backlash for speaking on certain topics or asking a specific question, a reminder is etched into the back of his brain: “Be careful with this topic in the future.”

About the Author

Having obtained a Master of Science in psychology in East Asia, Damon Verial has been applying his knowledge to related topics since 2010. Having written professionally since 2001, he has been featured in financial publications such as SafeHaven and the McMillian Portfolio. He also runs a financial newsletter at Stock Barometer.