Communication Develops Language; Language Develops Communication

Humans are social creatures. We need to communicate with other people—for work, school, safety, and well-being. And most people like talking with others. We like to share conversation, stories, information, ideas, jokes, and opinions.

We often think of communication as relating to listening and speaking. But we have to include writing and reading, too. And what about non-verbal communication like gestures and facial expressions or even tone of voice? What about signed languages such as those used by people who are deaf? These are all forms of communication. We have to broaden the concept.

This broader concept, related to the common experience of listening and speaking, comes in two flavors. First, we have receptive language. It’s like listening, but it also includes reading. It means we take messages in. We literally receive them. The other flavor is expressive language. This relates to speaking but also includes writing. It means we produce language to communicate something that others can receive. Receptive and expressive language are terms used to capture the two-way nature of communication.

In fact, we learn via receptive and expressive language. Teaching and learning are really forms of communication. So too is the signing that the deaf community relies on. In signing, expressive language involves gestures that use fingers and hands, facial expressions, and body postures. Receptive language requires watching and interpreting these gestures.

Here’s another thing. People’s receptive language (listening and reading) is usually more advanced than their expressive language (speaking and writing). This is true no matter their age or education level! People usually understand more words and ideas (as receptive language) than they actually use in their speech and writing (expressive language).

The table below sums it all up.

Forms of the English Language

Expressive Language Receptive Language
Oral Language Speaking Listening and understanding
Written Language Writing Reading and understanding
Signed Language Finger and hand gestures, facial expressions, and body postures Seeing and understanding