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The Impact of Culture on Language Development

Amy Hobek, PhD, CCC-SLP

June 17, 2021



How does language as cultural practice impact language development?


Differences and parent-child interactions can vary from culture to culture. There are five areas in which language development can vary based on these practices (Van Kleek, 1994).

The first area is aspects of social organization related to interaction. Who talks to small children, in what context, and about what topics within their family structure or cultural structure? Dyadic interaction is a predominant pattern in mainstream Western culture, however, multiparty interaction dominates in many other cultures. So, instead of that one-on-one interaction, multiparty interaction may be encouraged and might be different. For example, if we're looking at studies on language development and comparing other cultures to how we talk to children using child-directed speech, there may be differences and variations in the communication that children hear in different ways.

The second area is the value of talk. There are many cultural differences and attitudes towards the amount of talk that is valued, the role of talk in teaching the child a wide variety of skills, and the role of verbal skills in children's display of knowledge. This comes into play when we look at research, such as the word gap theory, thinking about how parents talk to their children and how there are differences in how talk is valued in different cultural communities. Are we looking at deficits or are we really looking at cultural differences?  This is when we want to think about why a parent engages with their child in a certain way. How they value talk within their home and within their community and how we can work from that place as SLPs.

The third consideration is how status is handled in interaction. I gave an example of that earlier, but in American mainstream culture adults are certainly allowed to initiate interaction with children, and children are also encouraged to initiate interactions with adults. That's not always the case in other cultures.

Beliefs about intentionality is the fourth consideration. In American mainstream culture, children are treated as intentional from birth. This is done by engaging the infant in conversational dialogue, often interpreting their prelinguistic behaviors such as their vocalizations and their babbling.  In some cultures, it is viewed that infants are not intentional and they don't focus on trying to interpret those types of prelinguistic behaviors.

The last area is beliefs about teaching language to children. A number of cultures believe language is acquired by observation as are other skills. The ability to learn language is not tied to any overt production of speech. There are just different values within various cultural communities on how language is taught to children.

One point to consider as we continue to view language development through our own cultural professional lens and what we've learned about language development, is that even with all of these variations and differences, children learn to talk and communicate effectively and efficiently within their cultural communities.  Even though it's different than the way we might do it or think it is the best way, children across the world learn to talk.

Refer to the SpeechPathology.com course, Language Development in Non-Mainstream Cultures, for more information on the cultural and linguistic differences in populations, such as multilingual and non-mainstream dialect-speaking children, in order to better inform assessment and intervention methods in our field.


amy hobek

Amy Hobek, PhD, CCC-SLP

Amy Hobek, PhD, CCC-SLP is an Assistant Professor at the University of Cincinnati, in the Communication Sciences and Disorders department. She provides clinical supervision and direct services at Arlitt Child Development Center, a lab preschool at the University of Cincinnati. Additionally, her teaching and scholarship focus on child language and literacy development with an emphasis on valuing and legitimizing cultural and linguistic variations in these areas within individuals, families, and communities.

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