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Do masks delay language in little kids? This Arizona psycholinguist says no

Masks are coming off in America. Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced people in most parts of the country can go maskless as COVID-19 case numbers continue to fall.

This holds true for schools, too. Most states and local governments have lifted masking mandates for kids and teachers. But some say, especially for little kids, the damage has been done. Throughout the pandemic, the issue of masking little kids, like preschool age, has been a point of debate.

The U.S. is unique in the world in its masking of young kids. Europe’s infectious disease agency doesn’t recommend masking for kids under the age of 12. And some here in the U.S. worry that kids being masked at really young ages can impact the ability to communicate later on.

A recent piece in the the Atlantic, for example, outlines what it calls the murky trade-offs parents of young kids have had to make during the pandemic. A lot of important speech development happens in those early years, and it’s an important time to catch and begin to address developmental delays.

But Megan Figueroa says this is all a moot point, fueled by politics and fearmongering.

Figueroa is a developmental psycholinguist and research scientist in the University of Arizona’s department of psychology. She is also host of the Vocal Fries podcast.

The Show spoke with her to learn her take on the debate.

MEGAN FIGUEROA: A developmental psycholinguist basically just looks at how children develop language. So, I started out looking at how, basically children know a lot more than they’re showing us. The receptive language far proceeds what we see productively. And so that’s where I started. And I've been seeing a lot of talk about how there's this sort of language gap of, you know, some children aren't receiving the kind of linguistic input that they need to develop language in a way that prepares them for school. And I was really concerned about that because one of the axioms of linguistics in child language development is that children will learn the language to which they are exposed. And if you’re a parent, you know that it's actually quite a cognitive miracle because, you know, you don't need to teach them this. They develop it based on just observing the world around them. You know, it’s miraculous because there's so much linguistic input, and they’re able to just take that and develop their language, and you don’t have to do anything about it.

LAUREN GILGER: Yeah. It is amazing as a parent, I totally agree. So, let's talk about this debate that’s been going on for some time here, about little kids and masking — which we’ve been doing for so long now during this pandemic — and how it might be affecting their language development and how they learn language as as little, little children. Obviously the jury is still out on a lot of this, but what's your initial response to this debate that's been going on?

FIGUEROA: It goes back to this axiom that I'm talking about, that children will learn the language around them. I think of it as a moot point because children, when they're infants — as you know as a mother — they’re not doing much not able to do much. They’re kind of at the whims of their caretakers. And so when they're in this home environment with a caregiver, these caregivers aren't masked. That’s just the initial problem that I have with the idea that masks are harming language development, is that these infants are in the home with unmasked caregivers.

GILGER: And is that the place where the majority of little kids are going to get their language developments? I think a lot of people have brought up preschools, things like that. Masking little children — which isn’t happening in a lot of the world, right? But you're saying it doesn't matter. By the time they get there, they've already been exposed.

FIGUEROA: Absolutely. And I've seen a lot where it's like, “Are they going to get to kindergarten with a language delay?” And the thing about this is that there are true instances of language delay, but this is not what we're talking about here. This debate is actually implicating children that aren’t experiencing an actual language delay. And so yes, by the time kids enter kindergarten or are in preschool — at about 4 years old — they have developed the bulk of their language. What’s happening at those ages past 4 and 5 is that they're developing vocabulary. And then when they get to kindergarten, first grade, they're starting to learn how to write and read. And that’s not language. Those are two different things. Vocabulary is something that happens throughout our lives. You and I are still learning vocabulary items, right? And so this is very socially dependent, context dependent. So, I see people conflating the idea of vocabulary development as children’s language as, as the development of their language. But they are two separate issues.

GILGER: What about exceptions to the “norm” here? Like what about neurodiversity or kids that do have language delays? How does this play in?

FIGUEROA: Right, so it would be the same issue as it was pre-pandemic and how it will be after the pandemic. You know, you might be concerned that your child is unable to communicate in the same way as perhaps their cousin or their sibling at the same age. And that’s what you're really looking for. The problem starts to happen when we compare children across different communities, because there are different ways to communicate. When we're talking about language delay or children that might actually have the need for intervention in their language, it’s the same things that you would be looking for, where it’s that they are having trouble communicating within the family, within the community.

GILGER: Yeah. How do you see the research on kids who are blind, for example, and how they learn language without being able to see people’s mouths, obviously in a similar way? How does that play into this?

FIGUEROA: Yeah, this is another reason why I see that this debate is something that we shouldn’t be as concerned with us as people are, is because blind children learn language, and they can't see mouths. Another example that is related to this for me, is that there are communities around the world that have been masking for years. And those children are OK. They're developing language. This is only new for us in the U.S. ... I'm seeing these debates like, “The jury is still out.” But for me, the jury isn’t still out because we know what blind children can do. We know that other communities have been masking for decades and that children still develop language.

GILGER: What about on the other end of that spectrum though? What about kids who are deaf and can’t hear? How has this posed a challenge for them?

FIGUEROA: Oh, absolutely. So, this is a completely separate issue that is an actual public health issue where deaf and hard of hearing children are often not exposed to meaningful linguistic input. And by that I mean they’re not getting sign language before they enter school. And so these children are actually experiencing what a lot of these debates I’m seeing about the pandemic affecting language development, they are experiencing a problem because they aren't being exposed to this input in the form of sign that would help them develop language. This is something that we should be concerned about. Unfortunately, it’s being made, in my opinion, invisible by the fact that we keep looking for language delay in children that don’t have language delay.

GILGER: So, you’re right. As a parent, one of the things I’ve really thought about in this is less about the language development, but more about how masking for my son who was 2 when this began and is 4 now. I mean, how it might affect the way he can make friends, read emotions — this social emotional development that’s so important in little kids. Can you imagine that is affected from kids growing up in a world in which they just don’t see people’s faces?

FIGUEROA: I’ve thought about this because in the realm of linguistics, there’s pragmatics ... how children and adults interact with the world and how that affects language. I see it as that children during this time have developed pragmatic knowledge of how to interact with other adults and other children that may be masked. And there are other cues that they have been picking up on, on how you can tell if someone might be our friend or if someone’s upset, or if they’re happy. They’ve learned the pragmatics of this. And I think that’s actually quite beautiful — call me romantic. But at a certain point, they will be exposed to these other types of environments that perhaps you and I grew up in with, you know, not growing up in a pandemic, and they’ll learn that, too. But they're learning things like how to be socially distant and how that can be important during certain times. That is one way of looking at it where we can be a little bit more hopeful, because kids are and adults are able to adapt to these kinds of situations. And whether that’s how we communicate with one another, whether that’s how we know to stay away from a certain person or whatever. I think it's just a different kind of knowledge of the world. And I think that that’s something that perhaps is a little hopeful way of thinking about it.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.