Maltreated children use more grammatical negations23 Feb 2018
Many studies reveal a strong impact of childhood maltreatment on language development, mainly resulting in shorter utterances, less rich vocabulary, or a delay in grammatical complexity. However, different theories suggest the possibility for resilience – a positive adaptation to an otherwise adverse environment – in children who experienced childhood maltreatment. Here, we investigated different measures for language development in spontaneous speech, examining whether childhood maltreatment leads to a language deficit only or whether it can also result in differences in language use due to a possible adaptation to a toxic environment. We compared spontaneous speech during therapeutic peer-play sessions of 32 maltreated and 32 non-maltreated children from the same preschool and equivalent in gender, age (2 to 5 years), home neighborhood, ethnicity, and family income. Maltreatment status was reported by formal child protection reports, and corroborated by independent social service reports. We investigated general language sophistication (i.e., vocabulary, talkativeness, mean length of utterance), as well as grammatical development (i.e., use of plurals, tense, grammatical negations). We found that maltreated and non-maltreated children showed similar sophistication across all linguistic measures, except for the use of grammatical negations. Maltreated children used twice as many grammatical negations as non-maltreated children. The use of this highly complex grammatical structure shows an advanced linguistic skill, which shows that childhood maltreatment does not necessarily lead to a language deficit. The result might indicate the development of a negativity bias in the structure of spontaneous language due to an adaptation to their experiences.