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Effects That Language Has on Cognitive Development

author image Peter M. Vishton, Ph.D.
Peter Vishton is an associate professor of psychology at the College of William and Mary and the founder of PowerBabies.com. His research has focused on the interaction between perception, thought and action in infants and adults.
Effects That Language Has on Cognitive Development
A mother communicates with her young son in a park using speech, facial expression and hand signs. Photo Credit Pavel Losevsky/iStock/Getty Images


Children hear and learn from the sounds of speech even while they are still in the womb. Language learning accelerates once infants are born. Children’s language instincts inspire them to learn the syntax of their native language and a vocabulary of approximately 5,000 words over their first 5 years of life. This language learning affects cognitive development in many ways. Some effects are specific to language, whereas others are more general.

Language Learning Promotes Concept Learning

As children learn words, they are actually learning concepts. For instance, when a child first begins to use the word “dog,” perhaps while pointing at the family dog, it does not mean she has actually mastered its meaning. Children typically overextend the use of the new word, calling many things dogs that are not actually dogs—horses, cats, perhaps even daddy’s beard. Children also underextend the meanings of some new words, interpreting them as proper names rather than category labels. As children build up their vocabulary, they learn not only terms they can use to refer to things but also learn the underlying conceptual structure that we use to reason about the world around us.

Spatial Reasoning and Language

If 2-year-olds see someone hide a toy somewhere in a room, they are good at finding it again later, even after an experimenter disorients them by covering their eyes and spinning them around for several seconds. If the room layout is symmetrical, however, the children have great difficulty using visual landmarks to reorient themselves. According to Linda Hermer and Elizabeth Spelke, children begin to succeed at this task as soon as they learn to use relevant spatial phrases such as “to the left of.” These results suggest that children’s ability to accomplish certain types of cognitive tasks depends on their ability to use language.

Resilience in the Context of Poverty

Children raised in poverty perform more poorly than average children on tests of cognitive function. These results are based on averages, however. Within every sample of children raised in poverty, there are always some who perform as well as or even better than the non-poverty children. According to a study by Martha Farah, these high-performing children tend to have parents who talked with them a great deal. One of the biggest effects of poverty may actually be that parents and caregivers struggling to make ends meet don’t have the available time and energy to spend promoting their child’s language development.

Reading to Children

According to Lynn Fielding, many studies have found that reading to children for about 20 minutes per day results in better scholastic performance. Story-reading parents may be different than non-story-reading parents. For instance, it may be that the story-reading parents spend more time with their children in general. Nonetheless, the relation between daily reading and scholastic performance suggests that the use of written and spoken language involved in reading stories promotes cognitive development.

Benefits of Baby Sign Language Learning

Young children are surprisingly good at learning sign language. Indeed, babies can often learn to use sign language earlier than they can master the challenging task of using spoken language. According to Susan Goldin-Meadow, early sign language learning results in better performance on a variety of cognitive tasks, especially those that rely on spatial reasoning.

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