Language and Cognitive Development

children talkingIn his Tractus Logico Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein (Wittgenstein, 1998) coined the famous phrase ‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world’. It is because of language that we are consciousness of our inner and the outer world and that we are capable of symbolic interaction. Our ability to explain, predict and understand others’ mental states, feelings, wishes, intentions and behavior is known as the Theory of Mind (ToM). Language development and ToM are closely intertwined (Miller, 2006).

Language and Cognitive Development

Language development and its representational use starts for Piaget at the end of the sensorimotor stage at about 2 years of age (Piaget, 1962). Initial language egocentricity which uses imitation, private speech and modeling, proportionally decreases while language- and thought differentiation increases (JeongChul et al, 2011). The correct application of logic and mental operations is not achieved until the concrete operational stage at 7-11 years (Arnett, 2012, p.294) while problem-solving, abstraction and hypothetical reasoning do not appear until the formal operational stage at 11 years and above (Arnett, p.355). Piaget’s mechanistic concept of schemata-evolution by assimilation and accommodation does not sufficiently explain how language development evokes higher cognitive levels and it fails to explain individual developmental differences.

Rather than individual investigation Vygotsky focuses on the emergence of language and cognition through concrete social interaction (Vygotsky, 1986). Internalization of external dialogue morphs for the child into internal, subjective thought (Christy, 2013, p.201). Human cognition is socially constituted, first pre-linguistically and subsequently by language.    Vygotsky stresses the importance of joint attention which forms a central idea in the ToM. In the ToM the pre-verbal ability of an infant to focus on an object or a person is a prerequisite for learning the first words. The child’s ability of joint attention with caretakers via language at 18-20 months is a precursor to the ToM (Charman et al., 2000). Social interaction precedes language acquisition and scaffolds it. Cognitive development starts with employing verbs such as ‘need’ and ‘want’ at 2:4 as well as using mental state verbs such as ‘think’ , ‘believe’, ‘guess’ and ‘know’ at 2:7 (Bartsch & Wellman, 1995).

At 40 months a child engages in family talk about feelings and causation while cooperative verbal interactions with siblings occur at 33 months (Youngblade, 1991). From age 3 onwards children are able to use mental state terms with increasing confidence and can perform typical ToM tasks such as differentiating true from false beliefs, handle unexpected content or identify a toy’s change of location while testing memory and intentionality (Miller, p.150), equivalent to Piaget’s concept of object-permanence (Piaget, 1954). In late childhood and adolescence the use of language expands from constative and performative speech-acts to locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts (SEP, 2007), allowing for complex mental operations, advanced problem-solving skills and normative assessment within extended social ecologies.

The impact of multilingual development on cognitive development          

Bilingual upbringing is positively associated with increased attention-control, working memory, abstract and symbolic reasoning and metalinguistic awareness (Adesope et al., 2010). Early access to a second language, fostered by high significance- and participation levels in everyday communication, is positively related to taking over another person’s mentalistic perspective. Meristo and colleagues (Siegal et al, 2012) point out that for deaf children for example early bilingual upbringing (sign language and lip-reading) allows children to perform at similar levels as hearing comparison children which is not the case for monolingual and late-signing deaf children. The reasons for such benefits are attributed to the development of efficient executive controls; this is to be able to focus on one language while inhibiting another, overcoming the child’s own salient mental state (Bialystok, 2004). Bilingual children tend to score well in ToM-tasks that pose high inhibitory demands, ultimately contributing to high-level cognitive functioning (Kovács, 2007).

Siegal and colleagues argue that the more advanced capability of understanding the intentionality of other speakers subsequently encourages more cooperative behavior. This is assumed to lead to improved moral development pending further research (Siegal et al, 2012).


In early cognitive-lingual development, semantics at age 3-5 predict significant variance in ToM-performance while syntax does not contribute to variance in belief or desire (Ruffman et al., 2003). In pretend-play, pragmatics, assuming different speaker roles and perspectives, play a vital part to cognitive development (Sawyer, 1993) suggesting that early cognitive-lingual development is driven primarily by semantics and pragmatics with syntax refining at a later age. Vygotsky’s visionary approach of understanding speech-acts in socio-cultural context provides the basis of today’s ToM.


Adesope, O. O., Lavin, T., Thompson, T., & Ungerleider, C. (2010). A systematic review and meta-analysis of the cognitive correlates of bilingualism. Review of Educational Research, 80(2), 207–245.

Arnett, J. J. (2012). Human development: A cultural approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Bartsch, K., & Wellman, H. (1995). Children talk about the mind. New York: Oxford University Press

Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I., Klein, R., & Viswanathan, M. (2004). Bilingualism, aging, and cognitive control: evidence from the Simon task. Psychology and Aging, 19, 290–303.

Charman, T., Baron-Cohen, S., Swettenham, J., Baird, G., Cox, A., & Drew, A. (2000). Testing joint attention, imitation, and play as infancy precursors to language and theory of mind. Cognitive Development, 15, 481–498

Christy, T. C. (2013). Vygotsky, cognitive development and language: New perspectives on the nature of grammaticalization. Historiographia Linguistica, 40(1-2), 199-227. doi:10.1075/hl.40.1-2.07chr

JeongChul, H., Sumi, H., Christopher, K., & Hasan, A. (2011). Piaget‟s Egocentrism and Language Learning: Language Egocentrism (LE) and Language Differentiation (LD). Journal Of Language Teaching And Research, (4), 733.

Kovács, Á. M. (2007). Beyond language: childhood bilingualism enhances high-level cognitive functions. In I. Kecskés & L. Albertazzi (eds), Bimultilingualism cognition (pp. 301–24). Netherlands: Springer Science.

Miller, C. A. (2006). Developmental Relationships Between Language and Theory of Mind. American Journal Of Speech-Language Pathology, 15(2), 142-154. doi:10.1044/1058-0360(2006/014)

Piaget, J. (1954). The development of object concept. In The construction of reality in the child (pp. 3–96). New York: Basic Books

Piaget, J. (1962). The psychology of the child. New York: Basic Books.

Ruffman, T., Slade, L., Rowlandson, K., Rumsey, C., & Garnham, A. (2003). How language relates to belief, desire,and emotion understanding. Cognitive Development, 18, 139–158.

Sawyer, K. (1993). The Pragmatics of Play: Interactional Strategies during Children’s Pretend Play. Pragmatics: Quarterly Publication Of The International Pragmatics Association, 3(3), 259-282.

Siegal, M., & Surian, L. (2012). Access to language and cognitive development [electronic book] / [edited by] Michael Siegal, Luca Surian. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2012.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP).(2007). Speech Acts. Retrieved from

Vygotsky, L. (1986) Thought and Language. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (1998). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Dover Publications

Youngblade, L. M., & Dunn, J. (1995). Individual differences in young children’s pretend play with mothers and siblings: Links to relationships and understanding of other people’s feelings and beliefs. Child Development, 66, 1472–1492.

2 thoughts on “Language and Cognitive Development

  1. This is such and interesting and productive arena of thought and discovery — the relationship between thought and language, language and awareness, awareness and consciousness, and consciousness and well-being. No doubt, education, in the traditional sense, is relevant, important, and necessary. Of course, the content and quality of this education is of utmost importance. No doubt, dear Joana, the subject of future blogs of which i look forward to.
    Michael Kovitz

    • It is my pleasure Michael. I hope that eventually major issues such as parenting or digital media literacy will be supported institutionally, accompanied by public discourse. The issue is perhaps how populations from traditional cultures can be invited into the process. My Kindest Regards! Joana

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