Developing Common Ground for Language Learning

How do shared activities help my child learn language?

A shared frame of reference is essential to comprehension when your understanding of language is limited. Imagine that you are in a train station in Russia and you don’t know Russian. If a native speaker comes up to you and begins talking, you probably wouldn’t understand what was said. However, if you went to purchase a ticket, you may be able to communicate with the ticket seller. Your ability to interpret is assisted by your shared frame of reference (buying tickets) within which you discuss limited information (e.g. fares and train schedules.) Common ground makes conversation easier to follow.

It is the same when children are learning language. Early language typically develops while a child is engaged with an adult in a task that serves to frame the attention of both partners.  For example, a boy may learn the word “ball” and the phrase “Got it!” while playing ball with his mom.  Although there are other objects in the child’s view, such as the fan and the rug, the adult is not attending to them, so the child can assume they are not the subject of speech.  Just like a traveler in a foreign country, the child must have an understanding of the adult’s frame of reference in order to interpret what is said.

So, how do I engage my child?

Developing a shared frame of reference is easier said than done. Children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders) have delays in the development of shared attention skills. You may find it difficult to direct your child’s focus and to establish a role that your child will willingly perform. Try to include your child in simple games and in chores and activities you do. Slowing down your actions, simplifying, and limiting your language will help.  Speak in short phrases and stick to the topic of the experience at hand. Above all, try to remain calm and supportive. Developing common ground will boost your child’s language learning.

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