Prof. Joseph Levine

Senior Psychiatrist




Conversation 19: Thoughts about the influence of language development on the creation of internalized characters

By Prof. Levine & Dr. Salganik


In this conversation we will first discuss the development of language in the young child, then we will briefly outline the stages of cognitive development in children according to the psychologist Piaget and the development of the theory of mind [THEORY OF MIND] and in this context we will mention the contribution of Baron-Cohen. In the following we will present two articles related to the development of language, one by Brooke Ferguson and Sandra Waxman from 2017 about the link between language and categorization in infancy, while the other is by Kerr Razori and her friends from the same year [2017] about the development of language to describe the mental state of the baby: the longitudinal roles of attachment and maternal language. It should be noted that there is not always unanimity regarding the dates of the different stages of development between the different approaches.

After laying out these datasets and views, we will try to briefly develop the issue of the influence of language development on the creation of internalized characters.

Language development in children

Here we will use parts of the description of the development of the language written in an understandable and clear way in Wikipedia, the Internet encyclopedia. "Although there are thousands of languages ​​in the world, it seems that the way children acquire language is the same for all human languages. The ages of infancy and early childhood are a critical period for acquiring a mother tongue fully and fluently. After that, language acquisition processes become relatively more limited in their efficiency It seems that babies are born with a readiness to learn a language, and with the physiological and cognitive ability to acquire the language, to understand and produce it."

"Language development occurs naturally and informally in every person living in a human environment. The process of language and speech development includes playful, intellectual motor development and eating development (motor aspects of speech that develop following eating and swallowing and communicative aspects that develop through playing and talking with characters from the child's life."

"In the process of linguistic development, the child acquires communication skills; these skills include the production of fluent language, pronouncing sounds in a way that is understandable to those around him, proper use of voice and fluency of speech, as well as understanding the speech of those around him. In the context of mother-child relations, the form of speech known as motherese is of use for the child to absorb the language, being especially accomodated towards him, in its slow rate, pitch, simplicity and repetitions."

"Language acquisition is done according to a normal and universal order of development, with changes according to the specific language.

In the process of normative language development, the baby's behavior already in the first months of his life becomes communicative behavior, and this continues to develop throughout his life.

The pre-verbal phase

The pre-verbal stage begins at birth and continues until one year of age (0-12 months). From birth, the baby knows how to use crying. Most babies already at the age of two months know how to express sounds of pleasure and satisfaction and at later stages begin to mumble and learn to understand several meaningful words.

The one-word stage

First attempts to conduct a conversation – the murmuring sounds of a baby on the verge of forming first words. This stage occurs between the ages of 12-18 months (one to one and a half years),

Vocabulary is acquired at a fairly slow pace until at least one and a half years old. At this stage the baby understands about 50 words and produces 3-20 single words.

At the beginning of the stage, the children learn new words at a very slow pace, and after a few months comes the "lexical burst", which is actually a massive acquisition of new words. Towards the end of the stage, around the age of two, the child uses "telegraphic speech", which includes the use of limited content words, and the lack of connecting words.

The multi-word phase

The multi-word stage occurs at the age of two or three. It occurs following a verbal burst or flow, in which the words are acquired rapidly, with the child in his curiosity trying to stimulate the process as much as possible. At this stage the child understands basic concepts and sentences and instructions built from 2-3 steps and moves on to add words.

The early grammatical stage

A phase that occurs between the ages of 3-4 years, and lasts about two years. This stage marks a very active period in the acquisition of the language, where the children learn to use grammatical forms and put together many complex and long sentences. Most expressions consist of nouns, verbs and adjectives.

The late grammatical stage

This stage occurs between the ages of 4-6 years.. At this stage the child's language becomes more complex, the vocabulary expands, the child understands words that express more complex ideas. At this stage, the child also learns the principles of temporal relationships, cause and effect relationships, and memory and preservation relationships, etc., and they enable him to communicate with those around him."

The language can be developed by, for example, telling a story when the children play the roles of different characters, participating in puppet theater with characters and the relationships between them and more.

Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget [1896-1980]

Another author of status and influence was Jean Piaget who developed a theory of the cognitive development of a child.

This theory of development describes stages in the child's cognitive development that has universal characteristics.

The sensory motor period

The first two years of the baby's life, the period of infancy, were called by Piaget the "sensory-motor period" (that is, one that focuses on sensation and movement), at this stage there is no object permanence.

The pre-operational stage

Age 3-6 or 7 years or so. Here the children acquire the beginning of the ability to create symbols, which allows for more developed thinking, but it is still not mature at all. At this stage the child is only able to focus on one dimension of thought. The child is also not yet able to grasp the concept of conservation and reversibility. Another characteristic of it is egocentrism. Children at this stage are unable to perceive angles of view that are different from their own. There is also a characteristic of "animism" – attributing human qualities to inanimate objects.

Concrete operational stage

Age 7- 12 years or so. At this stage, important skills are acquired, such as understanding transitivity (if A is smaller than B and B is smaller than C, then C is larger than A) and a developed multidimensional sorting ability. However, abstract thinking is still weak. At this stage, they also have particular difficulty with proportion tasks.

The formal operational stage

At the age of 12 or 13, the child reaches the stage of formal, i.e., abstract thinking.

What distinguishes children at this stage is the attempt to apply the abstract thinking too comprehensively, and that is why you often see in teenagers an idealism that is somewhat detached from reality.

Even today the Piaget’s stages division is accepted, but it is known that sometimes a child can progress in one characteristic of a stage and not in another (something called daclage). Today it is believed that Piaget gave too late a date for many of the baby's advances. Abilities such as understanding object permanence, the ability to describe the other's point of view or the perception of transitivity, are probably acquired earlier than asumed. Some of the skills he believed to come in stages are probably innate.

Stage theories that follow in the footsteps of Piaget but insist on greater adherence to empirically collected data and corresponding theoretical improvements are called neo-Piagetian.

[The passage above is taken, among other things, from Wikipedia: the entry on Piaget].

In the context of the child's development and especially regarding his perception of the points of view of other characters, it is appropriate to mention the "Theory of Mind". This concept has changed and developed considerably since it was first coined and published by Premack and Woodruff in 1978.

תמונה שמכילה דשא, חוץ, איש, יונק

התיאור נוצר באופן אוטומטי

Guy Woodruff [1934 – 2018]

David Premack [1925-2015]

American psychologist

The theory of mind is the understanding that the mind holds the beliefs, desires, feelings and intentions of people.

This awareness of the existence of consciousness is part of social intelligence and the ability to recognize that others can think differently about situations. This helps us to be self-aware or aware that others can think of us in different ways, and it helps us to be able to be understanding or empathetic towards others. This developing social intelligence helps us anticipate and predict the actions of others (although these predictions are sometimes inaccurate). Awareness of the mental states of others is important for communication and social skills. A child who demonstrates this skill is able to anticipate the needs of others.

As a general rule, two-year-olds can learn by imitating others, they begin to understand that people do not always agree with them. Only from the age of four or so do children begin to understand that other characters sometimes think differently from them.

It is worth mentioning here that Sir Simon Baron-Cohen presented a model of the evolution and development of "mind reading". Baron-Cohen developed a theory based on data from comparative and developmental psychology as well as neuropsychology. He claims that specific neuro-cognitive mechanisms have developed during evolution that allow us to "read the minds" of those around us, understand actions, interpret looks as meaningful and decipher the "language of the eyes".

Baron Cohen believes that we "read" the thoughts of those around us all the time, effortlessly, automatically, and mostly unconsciously. It is the natural way in which we interpret, predict and participate in social behavior and communication with others. We attribute mental states to people: states such as thoughts, desires, knowledge and intentions.

AS Psychology

Sir Simon Philip Baron-Cohen

[Simon Philip Baron-[Cohen [-1958]

British clinical psychologist and

professor of developmental psychopathology.

By the way, in 1985 Baron-Cohen formulated the "Mindblindness" theory of autism. Simon Baron-Cohen, relying on many years of research, concluded that children with autism suffer from "consciousness blindness" as a result of a selective impairment in reading the thoughts of others. For these children, the world is practically devoid of consciousness for intentions, desires and the consciousness of others.

By the way, one of us [Joseph Levine] was a partner in schizophrenia studies that indicated that even in this disease there are deficits in "theory of mind" [the ability to represent mental states of self and others to explain behavior] (ToM). One study examined whether a deficit in ToM in schizophrenia patients is a specific deficit in the cognitive component of interpersonal skills or a more global deficit that includes impaired information processing skills. The findings showed a specific deficit in the cognitive component of interpersonal skills in schizophrenia and not a general deficit in information processing skills. Another study analyzed the deficits of people with schizophrenia in two domains of social cognition: theory of mind (ToM) and emotion recognition and processing. The conclusions were that the impairment of social cognition in schizophrenia results from deficiencies in several mechanisms, including the ability to think analytically and process information and emotional cues.

1] Naive theory impairment in schizophrenia: is it domain-specific?

Bonshtein U, Leiser D, Levine J. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2006 Oct;194(10):753-9.

2] Social cognition in schizophrenia: cognitive and affective factors.

Ziv I, Leiser D, Levine J. Cogn Neuropsychiatry. 2011 Jan;16(1):71-91.

The first article we will mention here is that of Brooke Ferguson and Sandra Waxman. These authors researched and wrote about the link between language and the development of categorization in infancy:

Brock Ferguson and Sandra Waxman. Linking language and categorization in infancy J Child Lang. 2017 May; 44(3): 527–552.

תמונה שמכילה מחייך, אדם, לדגמן, ישן

התיאור נוצר באופן אוטומטי

Sandra Waxman

Cognitive and developmental psychologist [ – 1954]

These authors point out that language has a strong influence on our concepts. The authors document a graded process in which early connections between language and cognition provide the foundation for later, more precise connections. The authors suggest that early in life, language promotes categorization at least partially through its status as a social, communicative signal. During the first year according to them, babies get used to the relational power of language, while in their second year they begin to separate different types of names (e.g., nouns, adjectives) and their relationship to different types of concepts (e.g., object categories, properties).

The authors argue that the power of human language derives from its connections with our conceptual systems. In acquiring language, we acquire a means of encoding perceptual input as objects of thought and a means of combining elementary concepts to form more complex concepts. Language is also a basis of social and cultural message transmission, and it provides a particularly powerful and effective channel for sharing our thoughts and beliefs with others. Although research in both philosophy and psychology makes clear that there are distinctions between language and thought, they are often so deeply intertwined in our experience of the world that they seem inseparable. It is not surprising, then, that some of the most compelling and enduring questions in the developmental and cognitive sciences have focused on identifying the connections between language and thought, and how these are shaped across infant and child development.

According to them, over half a century of research has revealed at least one prominent connection between language and one basic conceptual process, and that is object classification. Studies of this link reveal that the ways in which objects are named guide learners' organization of these objects into mental categories. When the same noun is consistently applied to a set of separate objects, both infants and adults are more likely to represent them as members of the same object category. Conversely, hearing different nouns applied to a set of distinct objects directs learners' attention to distinctions between objects, facilitating their representation as distinct individuals or distinct categories.

Categorization, they say, is a basic building block of cognition, so this evidence documenting the power of naming over categorization has received a lot of attention. When we identify two objects as members of the same category, we determine their equivalence, which allows us to identify new category members and to make inferences about properties that are not clear from one category member to another. This seemingly simple achievement has enormous implications for subsequent learning; For example, by establishing the category "bad person" and its characteristics, we can learn from one or a few negative encounters to try and avoid contact with "bad people" (even ones we haven't seen yet) instead of learning painfully and repeatedly from encounters with them.

Categorization is also the foundation of word learning. To successfully learn the meaning of a new word, infants and young children must map a phonological representation to the identifiable, or attributable, category to which it refers. In other words, they must understand that the attribution of a new noun like "refrigerator" applies not only to the appliance in their kitchen but also to others. Recent research suggests that infants have established such mappings; That is, they extend even their earliest words beyond them to other members of the same object category. Most of babies' early words are nouns, and most expand beyond distinct particulars (eg, "nicky") to categories (dogs).

Furthermore, infants' ability to map nouns to object categories serves as a stepping stone to the acquisition of other types of words, including verbs and adjectives, because the meanings of these latter are implied by the nouns they are associated with. From this perspective, then, infants and young children's early connections between language categories and objects serve as the motor that accelerates the development of subsequent language and concepts.

Our goal, the authors say, is to summarize the evidence documenting the emergence of a relationship between naming and classifying objects and how it is shaped in the first years of life. They describe seminal research, one that demonstrates the power of naming on object categorization as early as 12 months of age. They then look ahead through infant development, pointing to evidence that toddlers increasingly refine this link during the second year of life, as they pick up different types of words (eg, nouns, adjectives, verbs) and link each to a specific type. of categorical reference (eg, categories of objects, attributes of objects, categories of events or relations).

Such a review—looking back and forth in developmental time—reveals a graded process in which infants' earliest language-cognition connections provide the foundation for later connections. To herald this, they suggest that the power of language over cognition is initially anchored in its status as a social, communicative signal. In the first year, infants enter the domain of categorical reference in the barrenness of nouns, and in the second year they begin to separate distinct word types (eg, nouns, verbs, adjectives) and associate them with different types of categorical reference.

The authors mention the theory of "natural pedagogy", which is closer in spirit to their position, but still different, especially with regard to the developmental processes underlying the relationship between language and classification in the first two years of life. Natural pedagogy claims that the power of language stems, at least in part, from its social, communicative status, and the authors agree. But naturalistic pedagogy also argues that other communicative signals (e.g., eye gaze, pointing to objects) are equivalent to language in their effect on cognition, since human infants are born with the expectation that information conveyed by a pedagogical figure (e.g., a parent) through purported communicative signals is "relevant to categorization ", and that as a result communicative signals (including, but not limited to, language) bias infants toward creating categories of object types. The authors agree that infants' cognition is guided by the social, communicative status of language in the first year. The difference is in their perception of the role of language as primarily relevant, and in their view that language differs from other communicative signals in the first year, when babies indicate with increasing precision the range of meaning that can be conveyed in language.

A second article we would like to mention here is by Becker Razori and her colleages from 2017:


And they discusse the development of language to describe the mental state: the longitudinal roles [over time] of attachment [mother and child] and maternal language. Acquiring the language to talk about mental states is an important milestone in the development of the young child. Current developmental theories attribute a fundamental role in the development of the language of the mental state to social interaction, according to which children build an understanding of consciousness in the context of social interactions. From infancy, interactions between mother and child provide the child with opportunities to build an understanding of the world. In particular, talking about the baby's consciousness [desires, feelings, etc.] in the context of mother-child relationships provides the child with an opportunity to learn about mental states, which in turn help to promote social-cognitive understanding.

Children begin to show an interest in their own and others' feelings in their second year, although this early capacity appears to be governed by understandings of desires (ie, wants and needs). Between the child's second and third years, he or she begins to use the language of mental states [eg, wants and needs] and that of beliefs [eg, thoughts and knowledge] with increasing frequency and complexity. This is probably related to a significant increase in the use of language concepts in general and an increase in language about mental states in particular, children in the third year begin to understand that other people can have beliefs, desires and intentions different from those of the child (these achievements are important milestones in the development of the theory of mind .Theory of mind refers to the ability to understand the self and others as mental beings who can have different desires, beliefs, emotions, and intentions, and whose actions can be explained by these mental states. Although a large part of the research relies on the successful completion of a task by the child in order to conclude that the child "has" a theory-of-mind, this theory is not "all or nothing" but a developmental process that undergoes perceptual changes during the preschool years and reaches its peak around age 4 or 5 in understanding that other people can hold beliefs that are not true.

Since the development of understanding mental states according to the hypothesis begins with emotional adjustment among parent-child dyads [couples] already in the first days of life, it follows that maternal input is essential for this complex development. Specifically, it seems that the mother's use in conversation about the mental state or words referring to the baby's internal states is the key. The authors point out that the language of the mental state that comes from the mother is considered to influence the language of the mental state of the children themselves and their socio-cognitive understanding (for example, theory of mind), but the mechanism is not clear. The studies examined the longitudinal development of mental state language in mother-child interactions. The methodology included assessments of the child and/or mother-child dyad at six time points between 12 and 52 months of the child's age. The measures determined the attachment style of the child and his language abilities, and the mental state language used by the mother and the child during the task of building blocks. The results showed that (a) talking about the mental state, including language to describe beliefs and passions, increased over time; (b) there were differences between the type of words to describe the mental state that the mother used in insecure mother-child dyads compared to secure dyads; (c) there were differences in the patterns of words used to describe the mental state used by both mothers and children in insecure versus secure dyads; and (d) engagement appeared to have a consistent effect over time on mental state description.

Now we will ask what these findings contribute to us in the context of understanding the contribution of language acquisition to the internalization of the characters.

First, it seems that the influence of language enables, while building it and in a gradual manner, the creation of a virtual world in the child in an ever-increasing degree in which the objects can be found not only in the real world but also in a virtual world, something that did not exist before the creation of language.

Secondly, we believe that the language connects to the basics such as the basic needs and the emotional world of the child and enables the activation and satisfaction of the needs even in the virtual world it creates. In essence, language makes it possible to create satisfaction or emotion and even a sense of danger when there is no realistic stimulus contributing to this at that moment.

Third, language allows the creation of new understandings, new categories. In this way, the language allows much better categorization and differentiation than the stages before the creation of the language (see the article by Brooke Ferguson and Sandra Waxman).

Fourth, language allows the creation of new connections between the objects and between the characters that were not possible before it.

In terms of internalizing the characters, this makes it possible to internalize richer characters in terms of their characteristics, including their worldview, their range of emotions and opinions, and more. This is because the language allows much more richness for description and categorization. We will also note that the language allows and contributes to the creation of imaginary internalized characters.

It is interesting that in the context of the child's development and especially regarding his perception of the points of view of other characters, we mentioned the "Theory of Mind" which is the understanding that the mind holds the beliefs, desires, feelings and intentions of people. There is no doubt that this ability is related to the construction of the internalized characters and it seems that the more there are deficiencies in this ability, the more it will negatively affect the characteristics of the internalized characters making them less differentiated and feature rich. Thus, it is possible that in a very low level autism, as suggested by Baron Cohen, there is no internalization of human figures at all that differs from the internalization of other non human objects. It seems that even in schizophrenia there may be deficiencies or changes in the internalization of the characters and it is interesting if this is related to part of the symptomatology of this disease.

Another point worth mentioning is demonstrated in the article by Becker Razori and her colleagues. An article that emphasizes that acquiring the language to talk about mental states is an important milestone in the development of the young child. Current developmental theories attribute a basic role in the development of the language of the mental state to social interaction, according to which children build an understanding of consciousness in the context of social interactions. From infancy, the interaction between mother and child provides the child with opportunities to build an understanding of the world. In particular, talking about consciousness in the context of mother-child relationships provides an opportunity to learn about mental states, which in turn help advance social-cognitive understanding. It seems that parallel to the mother-child relationship in reality, the image of the mother who provides the child with opportunities to develop the language of the mental state for social interaction will be internalized in a way that will create a richer internalized image of the mother.

And finally, according to Piaget, in the pre-operational stage, a stage that characterizes children in egocentrism, there is a characteristic of "animism" – attributing human qualities to inanimate objects. It’s interesting why these children do not tend to attribute properties of inanimate objects to humans but usually vice versa. Does this show a tendency of the human mind to represent objects in the world by human figures? And is this true at a later stage also for representing concepts through the use of character representations?

That's it for now,

Yours truly, Dr. Igor Salganik and Prof. Joseph Levine

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