At a loss for words? Introduction to the special issue on shyness and language in childhood


Shy children experience social fear and anxiety in novel social settings and feel embarrassed and self-conscious when they perceive themselves as being socially evaluated or the center of attention (Crozier, 1995). Shyness is thought to involve an approach–avoidance conflict. That is, although shy children desire social interaction, this approach-motivation is simultaneously inhibited by a competing avoidance-motivation triggered by social fear and anxiety (Asendorpf, 1990; Coplan, Prakash, O'Neil, & Armer, 2004). Over the last 25 years, shyness has garnered increased attention from researchers, clinicians, teachers, and parents (for historical and recent reviews, see Asendorpf, 1990; Buss, 1984; Coplan & Armer, 2007; Crozier, 2001; Kagan, 1997; Rubin & Asendorpf, 1993; Rubin, Coplan, & Bowker, 2009; Zimbardo, 1977).

From its earliest conceptualizations, shyness has been linked with language. Terms like ‘quietness’, ‘not speaking’, or ‘difficulty talking’ are a core component of almost every definition of shyness (Buss & Plomin, 1984; Coplan, Rubin, Fox, & Calkins, 1994; Crozier, 1995; Kagan, Reznick, & Snidman, 1988; Rezendes, Snidman, Kagan, & Gibbons, 1993; Rubin, 1982). Indeed, ‘does not talk’ is the most commonly mentioned characteristic used by both children and adults to describe their shy peers (Crozier, 1995; Younger, Schneider, & Guirguis-Younger, 2008; Zimbardo, 1977).

Results from a number of empirical studies indicated that shy children do indeed speak less than their non-shy peers across a number of different settings, including, novel, social, and classroom situations (e.g. Asendorpf & Meir, 1993; Coplan, 2000; Evans, 1987; Van Kleeck & Street, 1982), structured tasks (e.g. Coplan et al., 1994; Crozier & Perkins, 2002), and even at home with parents (e.g. Reynolds & Evans, in press; Spere, Evans, Hendry, & Mansell, 2008). This has led a growing number of researchers to more formally assess the language skills of shy versus non-shy children (for an extensive recent review, see Evans, in press).

The empirical studies have produced some mixed results. As a relatively ‘young’ research area, it is perhaps not surprising that definitional and measurement issues are still being sorted out. Moreover, there is continued debate in the literature as to the underlying conceptual mechanism that may underlie the relations between shyness and language. One possibility is that shy children are indeed less linguistically competent. According to this ‘lack of practice makes lack of perfect’ explanation, shy children's restricted verbal participation (because of social anxiety and socio-evaluative concerns) hinders their opportunities to practice and develop language skills (e.g. Evans, 1993, 1996).

It has also been argued that shy children's poorer performance on tests of language ability reflects problems with ‘performance’ more so than competence. Support for the ‘I know it but I won't say it’ model comes from some studies indicating that shy children tend to score comparatively lower than non-shy peers on tests of expressive language versus tests of receptive language (e.g. Coplan, Wichmann, & Lagacé-Séguin, 2001; Crozier & Perkins, 2002; Rubin, 1982; Rubin & Krasnor, 1986; Spere, Schmidt, Theall-Honey, & Martin-Chang, 2004). In a similar vein, it has also been suggested that aspects of the testing environment exacerbate the anxiety felt by shy children, which in turn hinders their performance (Coplan & Armer, 2005; Crozier, 1997; Crozier & Hostettler, 2003; Slomkowski, Nelson, Dunn, & Plomin, 1992).

A third suggestion is that shy individuals are more hesitant to take risks (Addison & Schmidt, 1999; Levin & Hart, 2003; see also Nicholson, Soane, Fenton-O'Creevy, & Willman, 2005 for association with low neuroticism). Such reluctance may constrain hazarding a hunch on tests of language development and taking a chance in social situations, focussing more on what might be lost than what might be gained in speaking. Colloquially, this might be framed as the ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ hypothesis.

A final consideration is that many studies have compared shy children to extremely non-shy peers, rather than to peers in the middle of the distribution of shyness scores. Thus, it may not be that shy children lag behind in their language development but rather that being very outgoing yields an advantage. Support for this ‘bold is better’ model comes from recent Canadian research showing that shy children on average obtain test scores on standardized tests commensurate with average scores in the norming samples, whereas their non-shy counterparts score higher than age-expected levels (e.g. Spere et al., 2004). However, it should be noted that average scores elevated a half standard deviation above the mean of tests normed in the United States are not unusual in Canadian samples. In fact this has necessitated separate Canadian norms for the widely used Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children—IV and Weschler Individual Achievement Test—II.

We are very pleased to have brought together some of the leading researchers in the study of shyness and language for this Special Issue to further illuminate these and other issues. For us, the four empirical papers presented herein represent the ‘next wave’ of research in this rapidly maturing field. In this regard, these studies address a variety of new issues that broaden the scope of the study of shyness and language in many important ways.

The first paper (Spere & Evans) describes one of the first longitudinal studies of the relations between shyness and language. This study is also noteworthy for its inclusion of assessments of multiple aspects of language (including literacy skills), its treatment of shyness, and consideration of non-linear relations in treating shyness as a continuous variable. The second paper (Coplan & Weeks) is among the first to consider the relations between shyness and social-communicative language (i.e. pragmatics). This study breaks new ground by revealing on the potential protective role that language may play in the socio-emotional development of shy children.

The third paper (Nowakowski and colleagues) further extends the study of shyness and language into the realm of clinical populations. This study compares the language and academic skills of children with selected mutism, children with anxiety disorders, and community controls. Indeed, inhibition and social withdrawal in early childhood have been observed to be precursors of selective mutism in school age children (e.g. Ford, Sladeczek, Carlson, & Kratchwill, 1998; Garcia, Freeman, Francis, Miller, & Leonard, 2004; Steinhausen & Juzi, 1996; Wright, 1968). In the final paper (Crozier & Badawood), the relations between shyness, receptive vocabulary, and speech reticence in the different contexts of ‘show and tell’ and free play are explored. Moreover, along with these different social contexts, this is also one of the first papers to explore cross-cultural contexts in the study of shyness and language. Finally, we are also very grateful to both Anne Cameron and Kevin Durkin for lending their expertise and providing extremely insightful commentaries on these four empirical papers.

Although some of the effects observed in these studies were somewhat modest, even small effects can define who we are and influence the choices we make. Thus, these studies offer implications for both future research and for early intervention and prevention in the areas of shyness and social anxiety, as well as language development. We are hopeful that this Special Issue will serve as a jumping off point for the continued and future exploration of the links between socio-emotional and language development.