One of the most fascinating ways to look at the question, “Why do we communicate?” is in the animal kingdom. We know that animals communicate. It’s not only that they use howls, growls, clicks, or chirps. Many animals use distinct sounds that appear to have meanings. Some researchers have also found that dolphins, primates, parrots, and other animals actually name each other.
Imagine the depth of communication it takes for an animal to look at its offspring and come up with a unique sound to identify that individual. Then imagine that animal teaching that sound to the rest of the group, and having those group members acknowledge that this is the offspring’s name.
But the clicks and whistles of dolphins, the grunts and growls of gorillas… are those merely sounds that have been assigned a meaning for communication of wants and needs? Or are they language that is used for social communication?
Fortunately, that’s for the animal researchers to determine. When it comes to people, language and communication are related. But in order to understand why we actually communicate, we have to first understand how language and communication are different.
Language vs Communication: The Definition
The difference between language and communication is blurred, but it can be summed up easily.
Language, at least for people, is a recognized construct of words that can be understood or interpreted.
Communication is any form of getting one’s own point across.
So, Why Do We Communicate?
1. Get feelings across
A baby crying is certainly a form of communication, even if it’s not language. The parent knows instantly that the child is unhappy or needs something. They may not know what the child needs—that’s where language comes in—but the baby is certainly communicating.
Adults do this as well. We have words or phrases that mean something to us, even if they don’t contain the same meaning for others. Quoting movie lines, for example, is one way that people get their feelings across without using original speech. Others may not understand it, but the parties involved do. Is this language? No. Is it communicating? Certainly.
Think about phrases you and your family use. It might be nicknames, “famous” sayings someone in the family once said, or lines from a television program you all enjoy. Do you have phrases you say to your children? Do they have words for things that the family still uses, even now that the child is growing up and knows the correct word? For example, my family still calls our local shopping mall the “Q door.” Our then two-year-old wanted to go to the mall one day and called it that due to the bronze plaque outside every entrance with a giant letter Q on it.
2. Interpret The World
Imagine if your every want and need was controlled by someone else, and you had very little ability to communicate what you wanted. These “overlords” in your life were actually nice and even wanted to give you the thing you asked for, but you couldn’t make them understand.
It’s really tricky for most parents to learn to interpret their child’s early attempts with language. The funny anecdote above was not funny the day the child was heartbroken and crying, asking to go to the Q door. It was literally months later that we happened to go to the mall and this child—who is now 18, by the way—pointed and said, “See! Q Door!
Nevertheless, interpretation is a from of communication that we use to reveal meanings. One specific area where this type of interpretation is important is in behavior, especially tantrums. What many people mistakenly think is a bratty, screaming fit is actually born from frustration.
There are countless articles, journals, and publications about the relationship between play and communication for a good reason. Play, whether isolated or in group, is a form of communication that children use to learn about social dynamics. Even co-play, or the desire to play near other children but not actually with them, is an important means of social communication. This is especially true for children on the autism spectrum or those who are simply introverts.
Since social communication and play are interrelated, the best way to teach your kids communication is to use language and communication for play in a never-ending cycle. It’s not just babbling at an infant to elicit a smile or playing color matching games with older children that will teach them communication skills. Every aspect of their day can be used for learning language and utilizing communication.
There are countless resources for parents and educators on incorporating language development into play. But don’t be fooled into thinking it has to always be “age appropriate.” It’s fine to push your child’s developmental boundaries by singing together to Arianna Grande in the car. Just make sure it’s a song you don’t mind your child repeating… because they will!
We’ve included five fun ways to teach kids communication (you’ll find below) as a bonus. Typically, though, these games should be presented in short bursts for optimal attention. They should be fun, such as through music or silly voices. The rules should be simple and clear as well. Finally, incorporating the child’s other favorites or interests is a great way to start.
4. For art and entertainment
Communication, especially expressive communication, is at the center of arts and entertainment. These major facets of human life wouldn’t exist without ways to communicate. Again, it doesn’t have to be language; look at classical music or painting as examples. But something is being communicated when we engage in these kinds of joyful diversions.
5. For Social Exchanges
It is difficult to have a social role in any group or population without the ability to communicate—which once again, does not mean language. All across the animal kingdom, communicating is at the heart of social dynamics. From providing food or comfort to another member of the group to grooming to teaching.
Why Do We Need Language to Communicate?
From the moment a baby is born, language and communication training begin. Some of it is focused and intentional, such as singing songs or reading books aloud. Sometimes, it’s only speaking in a certain tone. More often, parents use tools like making sounds, speaking in baby talk, or babbling. Even things like repeating certain phrases at key times—like bath time or diaper changes—are really teaching communication. It reinforces the idea that words have meaning, that offers have outcomes.
Of course, as mentioned earlier, babies are born knowing how to communicate. Crying, smiling, whimpering, and other expressions are really a form of communication. But we’re now talking about the importance of language in communication.
To help you understand this concept, think of language as the bridge that helps the child transition from simply expressing their needs to actually speaking them. That’s why experts endorse baby sign language as a way to help cross this bridge early.
Nevertheless, crossing this bridge between language and communication, as we’ll see down below, is not always without hurdles.
Typical Communication and Language Development ChartDownload Chart
Some experts believe language development can be divided into six categories. It begins with early one word and later one word first. After that, two word, three word, and four word development occurs. Finally, complex utterance happens. But when do these milestones occur?
The very first speech milestone a child reaches can occur within moments of birth. Simply reacting to sounds is an indication of hearing ability. By five months, the child should also be responding to voices and even words like their name. They may also “talk back” by making sounds in response to speech.
Between six months and two years, tremendous development takes place. Children at the younger end of this very broad group should babble, repeat sounds they hear, and use gestures to point to things. At the older end, children should use simple words, repeat words, and eventually use two to three word sentences.
By toddlerhood, children often can speak and use as many as fifty words, though their passive vocabulary is much higher. Those are the words the child can understand, even if they don’t yet use them for themselves. Starting to use correct pronouns instead of “me want” or “Joey want” happens at this age, too. But by preschool, the real language fun begins! Children between the ages of four and five can often use word groups. That means knowing different shapes, colors, fruits, clothing items, and more by name, and understanding that they “belong” together as a group.
Language and Communication Disorders
One thing that has changed dramatically for parents is the rigid adherence to age as a determiner of milestones. Many parents over the years have had sleepless nights, worried about a child of a certain age not doing certain skills. Now, parents are cautioned that milestones happen in a range of ages.
However, any parent with concerns about their child’s development can contact their local resources for help. Medical professionals and parents can request testing if it seems like the child isn’t reaching crucial milestones. Because yes, speech development is considered a crucial milestone.
There is a wide variety of speech, language, and communication disorders that can affect people at any stage of development. Of the most commonly diagnosed language disorders, though, most are divided into two categories: receptive and expressive.
As their names tell, receptive disorders have to do with difficulties in how words are heard and processed.
Expressive disorders involve using language to communicate. In many patients, there can be a variety of issues that lead to having both a receptive and expressive disorder.
One particular area where communication is gaining a lot of attention is autism. As the rates of early diagnosis continue to climb, more people are becoming aware of the importance of communication.
Since it is a developmental and social condition, autistic people often have difficulties that are not based on deficiencies in hearing the words or understanding their basic definitions. Instead, many autistic people struggle to process what it is that they clearly heard. They often need focused attention and repetition in understanding what the underlying intent was in the person’s statement.
5 Fun Ways to Teach Kids Communication
1. Jelly bean contest
You might have a jelly bean eating contest in which your child gets to eat any bean as long as they say the color correctly. This not only reinforces identifying the names of the colors, it helps establish rules for a game, consequences for incorrect action, and more.
2. Alphabet race
An alphabet race teaches not only speech, but also letter recognition and sounds. You’re your child list as many letters of the alphabet as they can in a set time period. Older children can do this with the phonetic alphabet, do it backwards, do it skipping the vowels, or any other variation you can think of.
Counting songs, especially ones that count backwards, are also really great tools for children. Having children make up their own tunes is certainly beneficial, as is fitting the content to tunes that they already know.
Children tend to love storytelling, and not just on the listening end. Encouraging young children to make up stories teaches them about group dynamics. It also helps guide them in how to follow some of society’s norms, such as with friendships. But more importantly, storytelling teaches communication.
By helping children experience a story arc—the beginning, middle, and end of the tale—they’re learning which words have more weight. They discover which kinds of words express specific emotions. They can even experiment with building their own words to help them communicate until they learn the proper vocabulary.
A video by Yale University showing how role playing can help kids understand about emotions.
4. Role playing
Many children enjoy role-playing games, especially pretend ones. These activities help children figure out their place in the world in a safe way. More importantly, they begin to understand how different people have different jobs and roles, while also understanding that certain forms of language go along with those roles.
As human members of the animal kingdom, both our language and our communication are more advanced than that of any other species. We can speak volumes with a single look or provide life-saving assistance after hearing a single cry for help. Communication helps us make friends, fall in love, raise a family, and be productive.
Language and communication are difficult concepts to narrow down. It has been the subject of research for decades, if not centuries. Anthropologists have studied the earliest societies to uncover their spoken and written languages. Educational researchers have investigated the best ways to impart communication skills to children at every age. Medical research has discovered amazing things about how our brains are wired for communication.
But are we communicating if we cannot use language? Of course. Are we using language when we communicate? Probably, but not always. It might not be a recognized language, but children of every developmental age—and even many adults—use language and their own forms of communication every day.