The bi-directional link between the development of language skills and the capacities of memory, attention, inhibition and planning
Language is a human capacity that enables us to communicate, think and learn.
To understand the words you hear or read, you have to pay attention and not get distracted. You also have to remember important things. You have to be flexible to understand the meaning of new words or things you do not know. You have to control yourself so that you don’t lose the thread and to make sure you understand correctly. If you have problems with these things, you may have difficulty doing things like following instructions, understanding what you read and talking to others.
To speak you have to think about what you want to say and how to say it. You have to remember the important things and put them in order. You have to control yourself not to go off topic and to change the way you speak if you see that you are not being understood. If you have problems with these things, you may have difficulty telling things or doing your homework clearly and beautifully.
To be with others you have to know how to behave according to where you are (quiet in the library, active in the park, not getting angry if you miss a game), understand when you upset others and play or work well with others. You have to be flexible to understand what others think and to listen to their points of view. You have to remember things others say in order to talk to them.
To develop and use language effectively, we therefore need other cognitive skills called executive functions (FE). FEs are a set of processes that enable us to plan, control, monitor and regulate our behaviour according to goals, context and new or complex situations.
FEs are involved in language development from an early age. In fact, children who show difficulties in FE also tend to have language delays or disorders. Some components of FE that affect language are:
- Attention, which allows us to focus on relevant linguistic stimuli and ignore irrelevant ones.
- Working memory, which allows us to retain and manipulate short-term linguistic information, such as the words or sentences we hear or produce.
- Planning, which allows us to organise our discourse in a coherent manner appropriate to the addressee and communicative purpose.
- Inhibition, which allows us to suppress inappropriate or irrelevant linguistic responses, such as misspelled words or interruptions.
FE not only influences language development, but also subsequent reading and writing skills. In fact, to learn to read and write, children must be able to:
- Pay attention to graphic signs and the sounds that represent them.
- Memorising spelling and grammar rules.
- Plan the text according to genre, theme and audience.
- Inhibit distractions and mistakes.
Difficulties in FE can therefore lead to difficulties in oral comprehension and production, leading to language disorders, and in writing, such as dyslexia or dysgraphia.
To develop and use language, one must be able to pay attention to sounds, words, sentences, context and the recipient of communication. Attention makes it possible to select relevant linguistic information and to process it in the short and long term.
Language, in turn, can influence attention and perception of reality. In fact, the way a language encodes concepts can determine how people categorise and remember them. For example, languages that have different terms for colours may facilitate the discrimination of colour shades. Languages that use different ways to express time can influence the mental representation of past and future events. Language can also modulate emotional attention, that is, the tendency to focus on emotionally relevant stimuli.
Imagine that you are in a dangerous situation, such as a fire or an earthquake. If someone tells you ‘calm down’, ‘don’t be afraid’ or ‘everything will be fine’, you will probably not be able to reduce your state of anxiety and panic. Conversely, if someone tells you ‘follow instructions’, ‘get out of here’ or ‘call for help’, you will probably be able to focus your attention on the actions you need to take to get out of the dangerous situation.
This example shows how language can influence emotional attention, i.e. the tendency to focus on emotionally relevant stimuli. Language can in fact modulate emotional attention in two ways:
- Amplifying emotional attention when using words that recall or emphasise negative emotions, such as ‘fear’, ‘danger’ or ‘disaster’.
- Reducing emotional focus when using words that distract or dampen negative emotions, such as ‘action’, ‘solution’ or ‘help’.
Language can therefore have a regulatory effect on emotions, facilitating or hindering the handling of stressful situations.
To develop and use language, one must be able to use working memory to:
- Memorising words, sentences, grammar and spelling rules that are heard or produced.
- Integrate linguistic information with prior knowledge and communicative context.
- Plan and organise speech in a coherent manner appropriate to the addressee and communicative purpose.
- Monitor and correct any errors or ambiguities in the language.
Language, in turn, can influence working memory and its components. In fact, the way a language encodes concepts can determine how people store and process them. For example, languages that have different terms for colours may facilitate the memorisation of colour nuances. Languages that use different ways to express time can influence the memorisation of past and future events. Language may also modulate the ability to inhibit irrelevant or interfering information, which may hinder working memory.
To develop and use language, one must be able to use planning to:
- Organise one’s discourse in a coherent manner appropriate to the addressee and communicative purpose.
- Anticipate the possible reactions of the receiver and adapt your language accordingly.
- Manage any difficulties or unforeseen events that may arise during communication.
- Monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of your language and make any necessary changes.
Language, in turn, can influence planning and its strategies. Indeed, the way a language encodes concepts can determine the way people organise and convey them. For example, languages that have a flexible syntactic structure can facilitate discourse planning. Languages that use different ways to express causality or temporality may influence action planning. Language can also modulate the ability to select relevant or irrelevant information, which may hinder or facilitate planning.
To develop and use language, in fact, one must be able to use inhibition to:
- Suppress irrelevant or incorrect words or expressions that may interfere with the message to be conveyed.
- Suppress distractions or stimuli that may hinder comprehension or language production.
- Suppressing negative or excessive emotions that may alter the tone or content of speech.
- Suppressing automatic or premature responses that may undermine dialogue or negotiation.
Language, in turn, can influence inhibition and its strategies. Indeed, the way a language encodes concepts can determine the way people select or suppress them. For example, languages that use different ways of expressing negation or modality can influence the inhibition of false or improbable statements. Language can also modulate the ability to inhibit emotional information, which can hinder or facilitate communication.
Simplified language and executive functions
FEs continue to develop into adulthood, in parallel with brain maturation. A good level of FE promotes the development of language, while a good level of language promotes the development of FE.
For this reason, it is important to assess and stimulate both FE and language in children and adolescents who present difficulties in these areas. When language difficulties are present, it can be helpful to simplify language.
Simplified language is a mode of communication that uses simple, clear and direct words and sentences to facilitate comprehension and language production by people with language difficulties. Simplified language can be used to improve difficulties in the executive functions of people with language difficulties in several ways, including:
- It improves working memory, i.e. the ability to retain and manipulate short-term information needed to perform complex cognitive tasks. Simplified language reduces cognitive load and the need to use inhibition to suppress irrelevant or interfering information that may hinder working memory. Studies have shown that simplified language can facilitate the memorisation of words or sentences by reducing the number of syllables or phonemes to be remembered.
- Improved planning and organisation of discourse, i.e. the ability to organise one’s behaviour according to objectives, context and new or complex situations. Simplified language facilitates planning and organisation of discourse, using a linear and coherent syntactic structure, avoiding subordinations, passives, negations or complex modalities.
- Improving language comprehension and production, i.e. the ability to use sound and graphic symbols to communicate, think and learn. Simplified language facilitates comprehension and language production, using familiar, concrete words, avoiding abstract, technical or ambiguous terms, explaining difficult concepts with examples or pictures.
- It improves flexibility, emotional regulation and dialogue, i.e. the ability to suppress or control impulsive or inappropriate responses and generate responses mediated by attention and reasoning. Simplified language facilitates emotional regulation and dialogue, using positive and encouraging words, avoiding negative or critical words, actively listening and giving feedback.
Measures and compensation
Simplified language can be used in different contexts, such as school, family, therapy or work, to foster the development and learning of persons with language difficulties.
There are various assessment tools and operational materials for enhancing FE and language, both in clinical and school settings. The aim is to improve the quality of life and autonomy of individuals with FE and language disorders.
Several instruments can be used to measure language-relevant executive functions and to improve and compensate for them in clinical or school settings, including:
- Neuropsychological tests that assess different components of FE, such as attention, working memory, planning and inhibition. Examples of tests are the Test of Everyday Attention for Children (TEA-Ch), the Digit Span and Backward Digit Span, the Tower of London, the Stroop Test and the Go/No-Go Task1 .
- Operational materials that stimulate FE and language through cards, activities and games to train attention, working memory, planning and inhibition, or common games such as Taboo or Memory.
- Dispensative and compensatory tools that help students with difficulties in FE and language to perform schoolwork. Some examples of tools are summary tables, concept maps, checklists, diaries, calendars, reminders, voice recorders, computers and tablets. These tools can facilitate the organisation, memorisation, comprehension and production of language information.
- What is Executive Functions?
- Executive Function Skills & Language
- The Relationship Between Executive Functions and Language Abilities in Children: A Latent Variables Approach
- The Directionality of the Relationship Between Executive Functions and Language Skills: A Literature Review
- Exploring the interaction of executive function and language processing in adult cognitive-communication disorders