Language Development & Use in Adults

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

We often think of language development as ending in adulthood, but actually, language continues to grow in different ways. This lesson discusses language development and use in adulthood.

Thinking About Language in Adulthood

As a social worker who specializes in geriatric care, Sophie is really interested in the ways her patients communicate. One of the things she has been thinking about is language development, or how language grows and changes, in adulthood.

She wonders: how do adults tend to use language and how does this impacts their lives and capacities? She knows that many people believe that language development is over by after childhood, but she has observed clients, friends, and even herself using language in very different ways over time.

Sophie also understands that adult brains are not fully developed until the age of about 25, when the frontal lobe is fully formed. The adult brain is therefore more capable of executive function, which includes planning, organizing and decision making related to language and communication.

Sophie starts learning more about what language development might mean in the context of adulthood.

Language Development

First, Sophie focuses on the overall developmental trajectory of language in adulthood. She knows that in the mature adult, the brain is fully formed, and language of a variety of types can be attained and utilized.

Speaking and Listening

Sophie thinks about what adults are capable in terms of their speaking and listening. She discovers that for adults with hearing loss, most of the same factors apply to their ability to sign or interpret sign language.

She also learns that speaking and listening can occur on abstract levels. Adults are usually capable of actively listening to what an interlocutor is saying and then applying their internal learning schema to make better sense of what they have heard.

Most adults speak and listen more effectively when they are motivated to understand or express themselves, or when the topic is in their area of expertise.

Reading and Writing

Next, Sophie starts learning about how adults develop their reading and writing skills. She comes to understand that there is tremendous variability in adult capacities for reading and writing. Some of the factors that can affect reading and writing development include:

  • educational attainment
  • socioeconomic status
  • the need to read and write as part of daily lives and routines
  • time available for reading and writing
  • motivation to read and write, for career, education or pleasure

In general, Sophie understands that adults who read and write frequently continue to develop their levels of abstraction, organization, comprehension and expressive capacities as readers and writers.

Language Use

Sophie also learns about the many different ways adults use language. Adults who use language more will be more developed in their linguistic capacities.

Adults also use language in a wide variety of ways, including:

  • basic interpersonal communication, such as talking with friends and family members.
  • seeking out emotional support, and using language as a way to express feelings and needs.
  • presenting ideas to others in educational or workplace environments.
  • building a new knowledge base about a particular or specialized topic by reading or listening.

Sophie also knows that some adults function in more than one language, or switch between different dialects within one specific language. Use is intertwined with language development and maintenance, as well as motivation to continue acquiring linguistic skills.

Aging and Language Development

Sophie understands that among her clientele, some specific concerns related to aging may have a profound impact on language development and use.

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