The Role of Affect and Emotion in Language Development

The Role of Affect and Emotion in Language Development

Annette Hohenberger
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61692-892-6.ch010
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In this chapter, language development is discussed within a social-emotional framework. Children’s language processing is gated by social and emotional aspects of the interaction, such as affective prosodic and facial expression, contingent reactions, and joint attention. Infants and children attend to both cognitive and affective aspects in language perception (“language” vs. “paralanguage”) and in language production (“effort” vs. “engagement”). Deaf children acquiring a sign language go through the same developmental milestones in this respect. Modality-independently, a tripartite developmental sequence emerges: (i) an undifferentiated affect-dominated system governs the child’s behavior, (ii) a cognitive and language-dominated system emerges that attenuates the affective system, (iii) emotional expression is re-integrated into cognition and language. This tightly integrated cognitive-affective language system is characteristic of adults. Evolutionary scenarios are discussed that might underlie its ontogeny. The emotional context of learning might influence the course and outcome of L2-learning, too.
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Language is a central aspect of human cognition. In cognitive science with its predominant computational perspective, cognition and language, as its core module, have been viewed as research areas that are strictly separated from emotion (Davidson, 2000; Smith & Kosslyn, 2007, chapter 8; Harris, Berko Gleason, & Aycicegi, 2006; Ochsner & Barrett, 2001; Niedenthal, 2007). Affect and emotion, which are inherently subjective processes and feelings, did not fit into the concept of the human mind that was thought to be governed by universal abstract symbols and rules. The two spheres were therefore considered orthogonal to each other, if not oppositional. Their interplay was only poorly understood (Forgas, 2008). Emotion was even defamed as a potentially destructive and subversive power that undermined the functioning of the rational mind (ibid.). However, following the ‘cognitive revolution’ in the middle of the 20th century, we now witness an ‘emotion revolution’ (Harris et al., 2006, p. 2258; Caldwell-Harris, 2008) in contemporary times. Emotion is no longer the pariah of cognitive science but is now becoming an increasingly respected partner of cognition.1

In this chapter, the role of affect and emotion in language development is surveyed. The intimate link between affective and language development has nowhere been more dramatically established than in the crude historical “experiments” in search for the “proto-language” of mankind. It is historically bequeathed that several emperors, namely the Pharaoh Psammetic, the Staufer King Frederic II, and the Scottish King Jacob IV arranged for rigorous experiments on newborns which they had deprived of any language and human companionship in order to find out what language they would develop. This language should then be considered the human proto-language. These experiments all failed: the poor infants either died (as in Frederic II’s case) or uttered only some sparse proto-words (which, however, led Psammetic to conclude that Phrygian must be the proto-language and Jacob that it was Hebrew). Thus, the most basic condition which must be met for any language-learning to be possible at all is human companionship and the willingness to communicate, i.e, “human and humane contact.” (Goldin-Meadow, 2003, p. 48; cf. also Hohenberger, 2004) A similar claim has been made for feral children grown up without any social and affective interaction (Kuhl, 2007, p. 116).

Although the link between affect and language is now well established, we still do not know the exact nature of this link. In this chapter, I will present various studies and views on the link between affect and language in infant and child development. In order to provide a neuroscience backdrop to the present topic, neuropsychological studies are presented to the reader in the appendix.

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