In two minds : cognitive and linguistic skills used by children with normal language and a specific impairment of language to understand and resolve ambivalent emotion
Background: Specific language impaired (SLI) children are at risk of emotionalbehavioural difficulties yet few studies have examined the part played by language Method: Cognitive-linguistic skills required by typically developing and SLI children to understand emotional ambivalence were investigated in three related studies using Donaldson and Westerman's 1986 methodology. This American study required children to answer questions related to stories evoking emotional ambivalence: The Puppy Story (love/anger); The Kitten Story (sad/happy). First study results replicated American findings on British subjects. The second study identified 5 cognitive-linguistic devices used by 32 typically developing children (7 - 11 years) when resolving two different types of ambiguity: emotional ambivalence and linguistic ambiguity (The Puppy Story/The Twins Story): mental role play (subjects answered questions in the character of the story protagonist), mime, metaphor, personal experience, folk psychology. Responses were analysed for expressive language performance/discourse errors. Differences were interpreted as differences in the cognitive demands of the tasks. Results: Children used different cognitive-linguistic devices resolving the two types of ambiguity. Girls became more specific in their use of cognitive-linguistic devices when answering questions relating to emotions. Children found linguistic ambiguity easier than emotional ambivalence to resolve showing that it was the emotional content not the ambiguity which created the difference in cognitive and linguistic stress. The third study compared 4 SLI children's responses to ambivalent emotion (Puppy Story) with those of the typically developing children. The Kitten Story was presented with pictures to support language skills. Results: SLI children's responses were less mature and atypical compared to language normal children's ability to understand ambivalent emotion and use cognitive-linguistic devices. The use of pictures did not help the children. Conclusions: Mental role play represents the gradual internalisation of empathy required for understanding emotional ambivalence which was lacking from the SLI children's data. Atypical metaphor use reflected the SLI children's inability to conceptualise the confusion inherent in contradictory emotions.