Typically developing infants acquire language at first in the home, mixing together immature, developing language skills with more “grown-up-sounding” vocabulary or sentence structures that they’re imitating from their parents, with no idea that they are mixing styles. The adults around them tend to think this is adorable. We don’t expect young children to have internalized the system of social signaling yet, so we don’t attach social significance to the style they use. Typically developing young children engage in a lot of pretend play, during which time they try to speak “like a mommy,” “like a doctor,” “like a teacher,” etc., showing their increasing awareness that different speech styles index different identities.

Developing “us” vs. “them” distinctions

When children are of an age to spend all day in school, however, an intense process of socialization begins, as they try to fit in with each other, including sounding like each other. In most language distinctions, there is an “us” and a “them.” You’re either a member of “our” regional or ethnic group or you’re not. You’re a member of our team (or our virtual world or our interest group) or you’re not. You’re a girl or a boy (like us, or not).  At school, kids develop an age-related “us,” complete with gendered roles within the “us” group. Children of the same generation express their affiliation with one another by the way they speak, including the generation-specific slang that they develop. A child who does not have this socializing experience (e.g. children who develop language later than their age peers or who are excluded from their peer groups for any reason) may sound markedly different from their age peers, which may place barriers to social integration at all life stages.

“Correct” (School-Taught) Language

Note that the language-related topics that are taught explicitly in schools have nothing to do with the naturally developing style that the children negotiate amongst themselves – on the contrary, the “proper ways” of speaking have to be explicitly taught because they go against the socially-valued styles of the children. Children are typically taught that they should not use taboo (“bad”) language (which, of course, makes it all the more exciting for them to do so when the grown-ups aren’t around). Children are explicitly taught some ritual forms of politeness (to say please, thank you, you’re welcome, I’m sorry, etc.) – which they then often conspicuously ignore whenever they think they can get away with doing so. Children who adopt the “little professor” style, speaking the way the teachers say they should, are essentially identifying themselves as “not-us.” This problem is further exacerbated if the “little professors” take it upon themselves to “correct” their classmates’ speech. As the late, great novelist David Foster Wallace put it, “From personal experience, I can assure you that any kid like this is going to be at best marginalized and at worst savagely and repeatedly Wedgied.” Many of the professionals who worked with socially challenged children in previous decades did them an unfortunate (albeit well-intentioned) disservice by teaching them to speak like polite middle-aged women rather than teaching them to fit in with the kids their own age. The current crop of therapists tend to better understand: nine-year-old kids should annoy their parents and teachers!

Changing Expectations as Kids Approach Puberty

While young school children already attach social significance to their peers’ speech style, the adults around them are still focused on their intelligibility and their grammatical structures. It is only as they approach puberty that we begin to expect children to have figured out for themselves the more complex and subtle system for navigating power and solidarity demands, and all that comes with this, including indirectness, turn-taking rules, figuring out how much to say, etc.  (Essentially all the topics we try to deal with on this website.) It is, in fact, right around puberty that Asperger’s syndrome and nonverbal learning disorder and conditions with similar pragmatic deficits typically get diagnosed, because this is when we expect children to be mastering these systems.