Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Social and linguistic factors influencing adaptation in children's speech


The ability to appropriately reciprocate or compensate a partner's communicative response represents an essential element of communicative competence. Previous research indicates that as children grow older, their speech levels reflect greater adaptation relative to their partner's speech. In this study, we argue that patterns of adaptation are related to specific linguistic and pragmatic abilities, such as verbal responsiveness, involvement in the interaction, and the production of relatively complex syntactic structures. Thirty-seven children (3–6 years of age) individually interacted with an adult for 20 to 30 minutes. Adaptation between child and adult was examined among conversational floortime, response latency, and speech rate. Three conclusions were drawn from the results of this investigation. First, by applying time-series analysis to the interactants' speech behaviors within each dyad, individual measures of the child's adaptations to the adult's speech can be generated. Second, consistent with findings in the adult domain, these children generally reciprocated changes in the adult's speech rate and response latency. Third, there were differences in degree and type of adaptation within specific dyads. Chronological age was not useful in accounting for this individual variation, but specific linguistic and social abilities were. Implications of these findings for the development of communicative competence and for the study of normal versus language-delayed speech were discussed.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. Bates, E. (1976).Language and context: The acquisition of pragmatics. New York: Academic Press.

  2. Beebe, B., Jaffe, J., Feldstein, S., Mays, K., & Alson, D. (1985). Interpersonal timing: The application of an adult dialogue model to mother-infant vocal and kinesic interactions. In T.M. Field & N.A. Fox (Eds.),Social perception in infants (pp. 217–247). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

  3. Beebe, B., Stern, D., Jaffe, J. (1979). The kinesic rhythm of mother-infant exchanges. In A.W. Siegman & S. Feldstein (Eds.),Of speech and time (pp. 23–34). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

  4. Borke, H. (1971). Interpersonal perception of young children: Egocentrism or empathy?Developmental Psychology, 5, 262–269.

  5. Bourhis, R.Y., & Giles, H. (1977). The language of intergroup distinctiveness. In H. Giles (Ed.),Language, ethnicity, and intergroup relations (pp. 119–135). London: Academic Press.

  6. Brazelton, T.B. (1984).Neonatal behavioral assessment scale (2nd ed.). London: Blackwell Scientific Publications.

  7. Brown, R. (1973).A first language: The early stages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  8. Bryant, B.K. (1982). An index of empathy for children and adolescents.Child Development, 53, 413–425.

  9. Buck, R.W. (1977). Nonverbal communication accuracy in preschool children: Relationships with personality and skin conductance.Human Communication Research, 3, 225–236.

  10. Cappella, J.N. (1981). Mutual influence in expressive behavior: Adult-adult and infant-adult dyadic interaction.Psychological Bulletin, 89, 101–132.

  11. Cappella, J.N. (1983). Approaching and avoiding others: Involvement in dyadic interaction. In J.M. Wiemann & R.P. Harrison (Eds.),Nonverbal Interaction (pp. 113–148). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

  12. Cappella, J.N., & Greene, J.O. (1982). A discrepancy-arousal explanation of mutual influence in expressive behaviors for adult-adult and infant-adult interactions.Communication Monographs, 49, 89–114.

  13. Cappella, J.N., & Planalp, S. (1981). Talk and silence sequences in informal conversations III: Interspeaker influence.Human Communication Research, 7, 117–132.

  14. Cegala, D. (1981). Interaction involvement: A cognitive dimension of communicative competence.Communication Education, 30, 109–121.

  15. Clark, R.A., & Delia, J. (1977). Cognitive complexity, social perspective-taking, and functional persuasion skills in second- to ninth-grade children.Human Communication Research, 3, 128–134.

  16. Cohn, J.E., & Tronick, E.Z. (1988). Mother-infant face-to-face interaction: Influence is bidirectional and unrelated to periodic cycles in either partner's behavior.Child Development, 24, 386–392.

  17. Coker, D., & Burgoon, J.K. (1987). The nature of conversational involvement and nonverbal encoding patterns.Human Communication Research,13, 463–494.

  18. Crown, C.L., Feldstein, S., Jasnow, M., Beebe, B., & Jaffe, J. (1985). A strategy for investigating autism as a prelinguistic disorder of social development.Australian Journal of Human Communication Disorders, 13, 61–76.

  19. Davis, D. (1982). Determinants of responsiveness in dyadic interaction. In W.I. Ickes & E.S. Knowles (Eds.),Personality, roles, and social behaviors (pp. 85–139). New York: Springer-Verlag.

  20. Duncan, S., & Fiske, D. (1977).Face-to-face interaction. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

  21. Ervin-Tripp, S., & Grodon, D. (1986). The development of request. In R. Schiefelbusch (Ed.),Language competence: Assessment and intervention (pp. 61–95). San Diego, CA: College-Hill Press.

  22. Evans, M.A. (1985). Self initiated speech repairs: A reflection of communicative competence.Child Development, 21, 365–371.

  23. Feldstein, S., Konstantareas, M., Oxman, J., & Webster, C.D. (1982). The chronography of interaction with autistic speakers: An initial report.Journal of Communicative Disorders, 15, 451–460.

  24. Feldstein, S., & Welkowitz, J. (1978). A chronography of conversation: In defense of an objective approach. In A.W. Siegman & S. Feldstein (Eds.),Nonverbal behavior and communication (pp. 435–499), Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

  25. Fey, M., & Leonard, L.B. (1983). Pragmatic skills of children with specific language impairment. In T.M. Gallagher & C.A. Prutting (Eds.),Assessment and intervention issues in language (pp. 65–82). San Diego, CA: College-Hill Press.

  26. Flavell, J., Botkin, P.T., Fry, C.L., Wright, J., & Jarvis, P. (1968).The development of role-taking communicative skills in children. New York: Wiley.

  27. Foster, S. (1986). Learning discourse topic management in the preschool years.Journal of Child Language, 13, 231–250.

  28. Garvey, C., & Ben-Debba, M. (1974). Effects of age, sex, and partner on children's dyadic speech.Child Development, 45, 1159–1161.

  29. Giles, H., Mulac, A., Bradac, J., & Johnson, P. (1987). Speech accommodation theory: The first decade and beyond.Communication yearbook, 10, 13–48.

  30. Giles, H., & Powesland, P.F. (1975).Speech style and social evaluation. London: Academic Press.

  31. Giles, H., & Smith, P. (1979). Accommodation theory: Optimal levels of convergence. In H. Giles & R. St. Clair (Eds.),Language and social psychology (pp. 45–65). Baltimore: University Park Press.

  32. Hale, J.L., & Burgoon J.K. (1984). Models of reactions to changes in nonverbal immediacy.Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 8, 287–314.

  33. Hoffman, M.L. (1977). Empathy, its development, and prosocial implications. In C. Keasey (Ed.),Nebraska symposium on motivation 1977 (pp. 169–218). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

  34. Hunter, J.E., Schmidt, F.L., & Jackson, G.B. (1982).Meta-analysis: Cumulating research findings across studies. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

  35. Jaffe, J., & Feldstein, S. (1970).Rhythms of dialogue, New York: Academic Press.

  36. Klee, T., & Fitzgerald, M.D. (1985). The relation between grammatical development and mean length of utterance in morphemes.Journal of Child language, 12, 251–269.

  37. Kleinke, C.L., Staneski, R.A., & Berger, D.E. (1975). Evaluation of an interviewer as a function of interviewer gaze, reinforcement of subject gaze, and interviewer attractiveness.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 115–122.

  38. Knobloch, H., Stevens, F., & Malone, A.F. (1980).Manual of developmental diagnosis. Hagerstown, MD: Harper & Row.

  39. Krippendorff, K. (1980).Content analysis. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

  40. LaFrance, M. (1982). Posture mirroring and rapport. In M. Davis (Ed.),Interactions rhythms: Periodicity in communicative behavior (pp. 279–298), New York: Human Sciences Press.

  41. Lee, L. (1974).Developmental sentence analysis. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

  42. Lieberman, P., Ryalls, J., & Rabson, S. (1982). Some acoustic aspects of early imitation in speech.Journal of the Acoustical Society of America (Supplement 1),72, S101.

  43. Marcus, E., Welkowitz, J., Feldstein, S., & Jaffe, J. (1970, April).Psychological differentiation and the congruence of temporal speech patterns. Paper presented at the Eastern Psychological Association, Atlantic City, NJ.

  44. Matarazzo, J.N., & Wiens, A.N. (1967). Interviewer influence on durations of interviewee silence.Journal of Experimental Research in Personality, 2, 56–69.

  45. Matarazzo, J.D., & Wiens, A.N. (1972).The interview: Research on its anatomy and structure. Chicago: Aldine-Atherton.

  46. Matarazzo, J.D., Wiens, A.N., Matarazzo, R.G., & Saslow, G. (1968). Speech and silence behavior in clinical psychotherapy and its laboratory correlates. In M.J. Schlien, H. Hunt, J.D. Matarazzo, & C. Savage (Eds.),Research in psychotherapy (Vol. 3, pp. 347–394). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  47. Maurer, R.E., & Tindall, J.H. (1983). Effects of postural congruence on clients' perception of counselor empathy.Journal of Counseling Psychology, 30, 158–163.

  48. Mayo, C., & LaFrance, M. (1978). On the acquisition of nonverbal communication: A review.Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 24, 213–228.

  49. McCleary, R., & Hay, R.A. (1980).Applied time series analysis for the social sciences. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

  50. Meltzhoff, A.N. (1985). The roots of social and cognitive development: Models of man's original nature. In T.M. Field and N.A. Fox (Eds.),Social perception in infants (pp 1–30). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

  51. Mundy, P., Sigman, M., Ungerer, J., & Sherman, T. (1986). Defining the social deficits of autism: The contribution of nonverbal communication measures.Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 27, 647–656.

  52. Natale, M. (1975). Convergence of mean vocal intensity in dyadic communication as a function of social desirability.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 790–804.

  53. Patterson, M. (1983).Nonverbal behavior: A functional perspective. New York: Springer-Verlag.

  54. Penman, R., Meares, R., Baker, K., & Milgrom-Friedman, J. (1983). Synchrony in mother-infant interaction.British Journal of Medical Psychology, 56, 1–7.

  55. Rosenthal, M.K. (1982). Vocal dialogues in the neonatal period.Developmental Psychology, 18, 17–21.

  56. Sachs, J., & Devin, J. (1976). Young children's use of age-appropriate speech styles in social interaction and role-playing.Journal of Child Language, 3, 81–98.

  57. Sigman, M., Mundy, P., Sherman, T., & Ungerer, J. (1986). Social interactions of autistic, mentally retarded, and normal children and their caregivers.Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 27, 647–656.

  58. Sonnenschein, S. (1988). The development of referential communication: Speaking to different listeners.Child Development, 59, 694–702.

  59. Street, R.L., Jr. (1982). Evaluation of noncontent speech accommodation.Language and Communication, 2, 13–31.

  60. Street, R.L., Jr. (1983). Noncontent speech convergence in adult-child interactions.Communication Yearbook, 7, 369–395.

  61. Street, R.L., Jr. (1984). Speech convergence and speech evaluation in fact-finding interviews.Human Communication Research, 11, 139–169.

  62. Street, R.L., Jr., & Murphy, T. (1987). Interpersonal orientation and speech behavior.Communication Monographs, 54, 42–62.

  63. Street, R.L., Jr., Street, N.J., & Van Kleeck, A. (1983). Speech convergence among talkative and reticent three year-olds.Language Sciences, 5, 79–96.

  64. Tracy, K. (1985). Conversational coherence: A cognitively grounded rules approach. In R.L. Street, Jr., & J.N. Cappella (Eds.),Sequence and pattern in communicative behavior (pp. 30–49). London: Edward Arnold.

  65. Weeks, T.E. (1971). Speech registers in young children.Child Development, 42, 1119–1131.

  66. Welkowitz, J., Cariffe, G., & Feldstein, S. (1976). Conversational congruence as a criterion of socialization in children.Child Development, 47, 269–272.

  67. Wiemann, J. (1977). Explication and a test of a model communicative competence.Human Communication Research, 3, 195–213.

Download references

Author information

Correspondence to Richard L. Street Jr..

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Street, R.L., Cappella, J.N. Social and linguistic factors influencing adaptation in children's speech. J Psycholinguist Res 18, 497–519 (1989).

Download citation


  • Response Latency
  • Individual Measure
  • Syntactic Structure
  • Communicative Response
  • Speech Rate