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Language Acquisition

When you think about it, it's pretty amazing that you're able to read the writing on this page, and understand that I'm informing you about language acquisition. Yet, across all parts of the world, where there's a language, children will pick it up, and, unless something goes wrong, become articulate and eventually literate language users. ...if not, we wouldn't have this topic...

Regardless of location or language, there are a number of stages that all children go through, at roughly the same times.

Patterns in Speech

Before children can start to string words together, they need to master the sounds that build up words. There are around 40 phonemes in the English Language (it varies a bit depending on the accent) and of these, a child's progression might look something like:

Age 2½ - vowels and two-thirds of consonants mastered.

Age 4 - difficulty with only a few consonants.

Age 6-7 - confident use.

While children quickly pick up vowel sounds, there are a number of other common features that you might find in a transcript:

  • Consonants are used correctly at the beginnings of words, but less so at the end. It's easier for a child to say "push" rather than "rip".
  • Replace hard consonants with easier to pronounce consonants:
    "r" often becomes "w".
    "t" becomes "d".
    "p" becomes "b".
  • Replace consonant blends (where two consonants are found together, like "check") with a single consonant. "th" is often changed to "d".
  • Reduplicate sounds. For example, a child might say "manana" for "banana" because "m" is similar to "n".
  • Shorten words with several syllables...such as unstressed syllables.

If the exam asks you to look at something with phonetic spelling, it will always give you the phonetic alphabet to aid you. However, it's important to be familiar with the alphabet:

Vowel Sounds

IPA Symbol Example
 i:
three
 I
bin
 æ
fat
 a:
far
 ɔ:
sort
 ʊ
put
 u:
boot
 ʌ 

up (in a London accent)

 ɜ:
her
 ə
again (like a "uh" sound)
 e
bed
 ɒ
rock

Dipthongs

IPA Symbol Example
 eI
stay
 aI
try
 ɔI
toy
 Ie
fear
there
 ʊə
sure
mouth
 əʊ
nose

Consonants

IPA Symbol Example
p
plan
b
boy
t
test
d
desk
k
kiss
g
go
t∫
chest
joke
f
find
v
visitor
θ
thick
ð
this
s
sad
z
zoo
shoe
ʒ
television
h
heavy
m
many
n
no
ɧ
ring
l
love
r
run
j
yesterday
w
wet

Berko and Brown (1960) found that even if a word sounds indistinguishable in the child's pronunciation, the child can actually distinguish the difference. Look at the following:

Child: fis
Adult: this is your fis?
Child: no - my fis
Adult: oh your fish?
Child: yes my fis

This would support Piaget's theory that understanding comes before articulation...(take a look here).

That's it for phonetics... the alphabet might seem scary, but you will get the relevant parts in the exam, so don't worry about it too much!

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Stages of Acquisition

The curious thing about Language Development is that it occurs in stages, regardless of the language or other external influences. Though the stages are only guides, meaning that some children do show variation on the times, broadly, all children go through the following:

Pre-linguistic stage (0-12 months)

This stage comes before the child starts speaking. The child starts experimenting with sounds. At 6 weeks, cooing develops - a sound from the back of the throat - and between 6-9 months babbling develops, where the child starts making a range of phonemes. If they ever say "Dadadadada" they're not actually saying "Dad" at this stage, just repeating the sound. Babbling has intonations (rising and falling pitch) which makes it sound almost like sentences.

Phonetic expansion occurs in this period, where a child is capable of producing every type of phoneme. Following this, at 9-10 months, phonetic contraction occurs, where the child's utterances become restricted to their native language.

Holophrase (12-18 months)

In the holophrase, children finally start to utter one word sentences. In this early stage, there is one theory that children are simply 'labelling' the things they see around them, but in reality, their use of language is often more complex: either a request for something or a desire to attract attention. We'll look at the pragmatics of early language use later.

Two-word stage (18-24 months)

As the stage's name suggests, at this period, children begin to string words together into two word utterances like "Daddy run". At this stage, their utterances are quite understandable and grammatical - in the earlier example, it's highly probable that the child means "Daddy is running". Though unable to form questions yet, children are quite able to use rising intonation to express them, such as "Daddy gone?" meaning "Where has Daddy gone?"

Telegraphic stage (24+ months)

By this stage, a child is well on the way with speech development. Children's utterances sometimes sounds like a telegraph, missing out lesser ‘glue’ words, and giving the stage its name. Simple utterances might be completely correct, like: “Lucy likes tea” and “Daddy is tired” but “Daddy home now” shows the child still has some progression to make.

At 2-years-old, the child will learn his or her first question words, “what,” “where,” and, of course, the dreaded “why”. By three-years, the child will be able to utter more sophisticated questions, like “Why’d you never buy me a guitar?” and the ‘glue’ words they previously dropped are much more frequent.

Finally, by five, children will have a firm grasp of language. They may still struggle with passive tense, though quite understandably.

... when you're presented with a transcript, it'll probably give you the age of any children speaking. One of the useful things to be able to do is categorise where the child is in terms of stages, and also consider whether they're at the 'average' for their age, or if their language is more or less developed. So this stuff is useful to learn!

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The Critical Period

The Stages of Acquisition are great for children who develop normally, but what if something goes wrong? If they miss the age guides given, can they still learn language at a later age?

A linguist called Lenneberg came up with the idea of a critical period for language acquisition. Today, we accept this critical period to be up to seven years old. After the critical period is over, children find it very difficult to learn language, and if they do succeed, their success will be limited - they'll never have the full mastery.

Feral children give us the evidence for the critical period. A girl called Genie, for example, was imprisoned without contact with anyone by her father for thirteen years. When she was found and freed, she couldn't speak. Over the years, though she began to learn, she never mastered language. Feral children also seem to suggest both a LAD and interaction are important in language development (see later Theorists).

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Lexical Developments

We never stop our vocabulary development. Even while studying this course, your own language will have increased by a significant amount: lexis, syntax, graphology, etc... (all of which should be very familiar by now!). For children's acquisition of lexis, the general trend looks like this:

  • 12 months: Child begins to speak.
  • 18 months: Vocab of approx 50 words.
  • 2 years: Vocab of approx 200 words.

Then there is an explosion:

  • 5 years: Vocab of approx 2,000 words.
  • 7 years: Vocab of approx 4,000 words.

These figures only refer to the language that children use, however; the amount of words they understand is higher. At 18 months, for example, despite only uttering 50 words, they can understand 250.

When it comes to the semantics of new words, children don't immediately learn the entire range of meanings for the word.

While they still have a limited vocabulary, they will often also over-extend their language, giving words broader meanings than they actually have. For example, a child might call "Daddy" any male member of the family, not realising it only refers to a particular person. It makes sense that if they don't have a word for something, they'll use something that has a logical connection in its place. When a child has a 50-word vocabulary, a third of words are likely to be over-extended.

The reverse can occasionally happen, though, called under-extension. For example, a child might think "shoes" refers to just one particular pair of shoes. This is less frequent, unsurprisingly.

Research has shown that children's first words tend to be learned in predictable patterns. They fall into the categorise (useful for describing utterances in the Two-word Stage):

  • entities - a thing
  • properties - words about entities
  • actions - verbs
  • personal - social words

For example:

"clever boy" is a property and an entity.
"hit floor" is an action and an entity.

The large proportion refer to their environment: the people and objects around them, and the social aspects.

The first word classes learned are nouns (concrete, abstract nouns don't come until around 5-7 years), and dynamic verbs. The things in a child's environment. Then adjectives come. Grammatical function words, like prepositions, determiners and conjunctions don't come until much later (see the section on Grammar...).

Because the early utterances are limited in syntactical choice, children often combine word classes that wouldn't normally be seen together. For example "you little" is a pronoun followed by an adjective. Linguists have devised "semantic relations", a better "grammar" for describing children's early utterances. Rather than nouns, verbs, adjective, pronouns, etc, we have a new set of labels:

  • Agent = someone or something who performs an action.
  • Action = something done, which may not necessarily be a verb.
  • Affected = someone or something that the action is being done to.
  • Location = where something happens.
  • Entity = someone or something that just is (i.e. not an agent, affected or possessor).
  • Possessor = someone or something that owns something.
  • Attribute = a word that tells us about someone or something.
  • Nomination = attach a label to something.
  • Recurrence = something happens more than once or more than one of something.
  • Negation = when something isn't there or doesn't happen.

From these, we can take the following and describe them:

  1. take bikky = action + affected
  2. mummy give = agent + action
  3. clock ticking = agent + action (or entity + attribute, if "ticking" is an adjective, rather than noun).
  4. big hand = attribute + entity
  5. me little = entity + attribute
  6. eat crips[crisps] = action + affected

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Theories of Early Language Use

As with most aspects of language, there are various theorists who have ideas about what's going on with children's early utterances.

Jean Aitchinson (1987) suggested that there are three stages to vocabulary usage:

  1. Labelling - learning the word.
  2. Packaging - learning about its meanings.
  3. Networking - seeing how it connects to other words.

However, as other theorists have pointed out, children never really go through a stage where they are just 'labelling' things to learn the words. There is usually a reason behind the words, perhaps a request for something or a desire to attract attention.

Other theorists suggest that children's language has three functions:

  • Children use language for practical purposes - to get what they want.
  • Children use it for social purposes - to talk for the sake of interaction and the sake of talking.
  • Children use it for learning purposes - to extend their understanding of the word around them and build up their own ideas. The classic "why?".

For example, a child might utter “juice”. Depending on the context, it could mean, “I want some juice,” “I’ve spilled some juice,” or even, “I’ve had enough juice.”

Michael Halliday subdivided these broad categories further:

Practical
  • Instumental - "I want".
  • Regulatory - "Do what I tell you to do".
Social
  • Interactional - "Me and you".
  • Personal - "Here I come" or opinions like "That's funny".
Learning
  • Heuristic - "Tell me why".
  • Imaginative - "Let's pretend".
  • Referential - "Let me tell you about this".

John Dore did similar research on 12-18 month children, and came out with another set of criteria, which refined Halliday's.

  • Labelling - utterances that don't seek a response.
  • Repeating - repeating an overheard word.
  • Answering - responding to a question.
  • Requesting (action) - asking for help with an action (Halliday's instrumental/regulatory).
  • Requesting (answer) - asking a question.
  • Calling - calling to someone far away (Halliday's interactional).
  • Greeting - welcoming a newcomer (Halliday's interactional).
  • Protesting - shouting at something unwanted (Halliday's personal).
  • Practicing - saying a word, out of context, just to practise it.

That's it for theories here! Make sure you can talk about them, and apply them if appropriate. Comment on their strengths and weaknesses - how well they apply to a particular text!

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Syntactical Developments

Strangely, lots of people find syntax (grammar) one of the most difficult frameworks to analyse. Make sure your grammatical knowledge is up to scratch before going into this topic!

As with lexis, there are particular stages children go through, relating back to the stages of acquisition.

Holophrase

In the one-word stage, the child may just be 'labelling', though as the theorists above suggest, it can be more complex. The single utterance, through intonation, could be used as declarative, imperative or interrogative: "Juice." (I have juice) "Juice?" (can I have some juice?) or "Juice!" (give me some juice!)

Even as early as the one-word stage, children can convey negation, though it is dependent on "no" or "not" alone.

Another important thing to note is that understanding is ahead of syntactical development. Despite being only able to utter one word, children can respond to two-word utterances, for example.

Two-word stage

Though they only utter two words, their sequences (word order) are generally accurate, even if they miss out the 'glue words' in between. For example:

subject + verb = "daddy sleep"
verb + object = "draw birdie"
subject + object = "Suzy juice"
subject + complement = "daddy busy"

Of these, the only one that would perhaps cause any problem is the subject and object, with the elision of the verb. Is it saying that the juice belongs to Suzy, or that she has the juice, or that she's drinking it? Without the context, we can't know for certain, and it's perfectly acceptable in the exam to point out the different interpretations.

Other ambiguities arise from the lack of inflectional affixes - a posh term for suffixes that form different tenses, allow possession and pluralisation. "daddy sleep" for example, should really be, in singular present tense, "daddy sleeps". If "Suzy juice" is possessive, there should be an apostrophe and a 's': "Suzy's juice."

Even when children repeat the people around them, they omit the 'lesser' words but retain the correct order.

Mother: Look, Ben's playing in the garden!
Child: Play garden.

It's a case, for the child, of picking out the 'key words'.

Though still limited, children are capable of a range of meanings. Above, "Suzy juice" could be an example of possession (it is Suzy's juice), and "daddy sleep" gives action, while "Teddy bed" gives is a sense of location (the teddy is in bed). A child can also form simple interrogatives through the use of intonation, such as "Suzy juice?" (is it Suzy's juice?) and more complicated negations, "no juice" (I don't want juice!).

Telegraphic stage

By this stage, children's simple utterances are often grammatically correct. For example:

subject + verb + object = "Lucy likes tea."
subject + verb + compliment = "Teddy is tired."
subject + verb + adjective = "Mummy sleeps upstairs."

However, like telegraphs, children will utter the key words but will still often drop:

  • determiners
  • auxiliaries
  • prepositions

For example, "Daddy home now," drops the auxiliary "is".

Berko (1973) did research into children's inflectional use during this stage, at ages 20-36 months. He found that they master them in the following order:

  1. -ing
  2. plural -s
  3. possessive -s
  4. determiners
  5. past tense -ed
  6. third person singular verb endings -s
  7. auxiliary 'be'

From the rising intonations of the two-word stage for interrogatives, the children begin to develop the more complicated question constructions in the telegraphic stage. By two years, they learn the 'question words': what, where, and then why.

By three years, they start to make rapid progress, using determiners more regularly, stringing together more than one clause per utterance with use of coordinating conjunction ("and"), and even including the inflectional affixes. For questions, they acquire the auxiliary and grammatical inversion, for example, "Joe is here" would be inverted to, "Is Joe here?" Sometimes, in this early period, confusion can occur with "question words" and inversion, such as, "Why Joe isn't here?"

As the children acquire auxiliaries, they learn more sophisticated negations, such as "can't" and "don't":

"I don't want it."
"Sammy can't have it."

Later still, they learn more negation auxiliaries "didn't" and "isn't".

By five years old, children will have mastered most grammatical structures, though they might still struggle with passive tense... now you just have to learn it all, and we'll all be happy!

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Pragmatic Awareness

Why do children acquire language? Because they realise early on - hearing speech around them - just how important and useful a tool it is.

You may recall Grice's maxims from all the way back in ENB1 (everything comes back to haunt us eventually!). The maxims of quantity, relation (relevance), manner (clarity) and quality (truth). They're a good thing to consider when you look at the pragmatics of what children are saying, because it takes a while for children to grasp pragmatics.

Young children also don't have much control of topic management. One feature of adult child-directed speech (see the next section) is use of topic management such as, "That's right, you have to kick it don't you," in order to keep a child focused on the task or conversation of the moment.

Other features of young children's lack of pragmatics and control include:

  • repetition
  • demands (imperatives) and no negotiation
  • erratic, distorted utterances

Though pragmatic development begins before a child can speak, it is slower than some of the other aspects because some of it has to be 'taught' rather than developing naturally. By three, children begin to make some headway however, learning how to initiate a conversation with someone else, to obtain attention and listen to others, and the idea of 'turn taking' in a conversation.

Between three and five, they will develop the 'social factors', such as the correct ways to address people, politeness tokens, indirect requests, mitigated responses (helped by their acquisition of modal verbs!). They learn how to makes conversational repairs and cope with situations that don't go their way (rather than crying and kicking feet...hmm, clearly I've forgotten this stage of late).

After five, they still need to acquire the manipulative devices like "you know" or "actually", but the basic pragmatic devices of when to speak, how to respond and the appropriate register will be mastered.

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Child Directed Speech

CDS, a.k.a. Motherese a.k.a. Caretaker Language is the language that parents or guardians use to children. Although I was brought into this topic by Chomsky and Pinker, and thus, much prefer Motherese, I'll use CDS to stay politically correct...

If you ever listen to someone talking to a child, you'll notice some quite distinctive phonological features...and in fact, have probably laughed about them... Phonologically, CDS characteristics include:

  • separating phrases distinctly with longer pauses,
  • speaking more s-l-o-w-l-y,
  • exaggerating the differences between interrogatives, imperatives and declaratives, and
  • using a higher and wider pitch.

In terms of lexis, adults tend to:

  • use concrete nouns ("chair" "table") and dynamic verbs ("give" "put"), and limited to words the adult knows the child will understand,
  • adopt the children's own lexis: "ickle babies," and
  • use the child's name frequently (to keep their concentration), while avoiding confusing pronouns.

CDS's syntax:

  • repeats sentence frames: "That's a dog. That's a cat."
  • uses simple sentences that are generally grammatical,
  • has few complex sentences, and little passive voice usage,
  • sometimes omits past tense and other inflections,
  • usually consists of imperatives or interrogatives (to keep the child focused), and
  • uses expansions - repeating a child's utterance, but 'filling it out'.

Child directed speech might also use more gestures and exaggerated body language, and have frequent pauses for the child to respond. As the children's utterances increase, so too, do the adults'. Adults will also adopt their conversation to topics the child will be interested in.

Although Chomsky (see later Theorists) didn't believe CDS has much to do with child language acquisition, there have been a number of researchers that suggest CDS does play a part.

Clarke-Stewart (1973) found that children whose mothers talked to them had larger vocabularies than other children.

Kuhl (1992) did a study of exaggerated sounds to six month olds in English, Swedish and Russian. He found that babies turned towards adults who spoke in a sing-song voice, but ignored those who spoke normally, and that mothers in all countries used exaggerated sounds.

But do children learn by imitation as Behavourists suggest (see later)? Not at all.

Children tend to make up words using rules that apply to other words, "it's the baddest." "you don't say badder, you say worser." These are known as virtuous errors and an adult would never say them, so children can't simply copy.

Positive and negative reinforcement (correcting a child's utterances) doesn't work either. Nelson (1973) found that if a mother constantly corrected a child on word choice and pronunciation, the child actually developed more slowly.

But enough of this debate in this section, just scroll down to the next section for more!

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Theories of Acquisition

There are a number of key theories and theorists that you should be aquatinted with, and able to talk about if the question opens up to them, much like those in ENB2. The theories involve explaining how language acquisition actually occurs. Is it an innate part of us, something we are born with? Is it that children learn by copying? A mixture of these two? There is only so much evidence, and the theories can only offer suggestions...

What you believe on the matter, personally, doesn't really matter as long as you're able to talk about the different theorists (so no guessing where my bias lies!).

Behavourists

In 1957 (immediately, dated research!), B.F. Skinner put forward the Behavourists argument of acquisition. This view is that children acquire language through something called "operative condition", that language is learned in much the same as any other form of learning.

Children, he claimed, start as "blank slates" and through positive reinforcement whenever they speak a correct utterance, and negative feedback whenever they speak an ungrammatical utterance, they learn what was "right" and "wrong" in terms of speaking. Much like a dog can be taught tricks, using treats as rewards...and indeed, Skinner tested his theory on pigeons and rats.

There is some evidence in support. Stacets and Stacets (1963) found that parents are excited to hear a child utter a 'correct' sentence, and then reward a child with attention/feeding. This seems to suggest that the positive feedback part of Skinner's approach holds some truth.

However, there are many problems with a Behavourist view. Nelson (1973) found that children's vocabulary development actually slowed if children were subjected to systematic correction. Other researchers suggest that parents are more concerned with truthful that grammatical utterance. When Chomsky came along later, he pointed out that children of all languages and backgrounds tended to acquire language at roughly the same times, regardless of parent feedback. This ruined Skinner's theory, and left room for a new one to be developed...

Innate

Noam Chomsky radically changed the world's thinking about many aspects of language acquisition and syntactical development. He challenged Skinner's view about language development, suggesting that children learn instead through an innate part of their brains, a device he called the LAD (Language Acquisition Device). When exposed to spoken language in the environment around them, children's LADs are turned on.

Through a process of hearing language around them, the brain develops a number of rules, first about how words are built up from their phonemes, and the rules of morphemes, then to putting words together such as the subject verb object string found in English. Though you don't need to know the details, it is quite a fascinating topic...

There's lots of evidence to support language acquisition being innate. First and foremost is that children of all languages and backgrounds acquire language at roughly the same time. We've already seen the stages of acquisition, and this too, suggests that it is something in the brain that develops. It doesn't matter whether a child has Motherese thrown at them or not - as long as they're in an environment that uses language, they will pick it up.

One test that supports Chomsky's LAD is the wug test by Berko (1958). In this, the linguist showed children an image of an imaginary creature:

He told them that the creature was called a 'wug'. Showing them two, he said, "Now there is another one. So there are two _____." The children would respond with "wugs".

Though they've never come across a wug before, they know a rule that to pluralise a noun, you have to add "-s". This is never taught to them, but somehow they learn it - it suggests that a LAD is present.

Another strong piece of evidence for the LAD arises from virtuous errors, also know as Linguistic Creativity. If a child says, "I runned" or "I felled", they are using language in a way that they would never hear their parents express it. Instead, they seem to be using an inbuilt rule that past tense is formed by adding "-ed". Until this rule is blocked for a particular rule with an irregular verb ending ("ran" and "fell"), Chomsky suggested, the child would use the automatic rule.

But is it purely innate, as Chomsky originally suggested? A clue might be in that he later amended his theory...to incorporate more those external influences...

Social Interactionist

The most well known linguist behind this approach was Jerome Brunner. Social Interactionists believe in the importance of interaction, as the title suggests. Although they agree that there may be a LAD in all children's brains, they think it is through interaction with those around them that they learn how language is used (the pragmatics, turn taking, non-verbal communication, etc).

Brunner suggested that children have a system called LASS (Language Acquisition Support System), born from Chomsky's LAD, in which interaction "scaffolds" children's language development.

Where Chomsky was dismissive of the role of parent-child interaction, Brunner, and other social interactionalists like Snow, stress its importance. They claim that the rituals of conversation occur between children and parents even before the children acquire language, such as in the example:

Father: Have you done a wee wee?
Daughter: (smiles and maintains eye contact)
Father: Shall we have a look in your nappy?
Daughter: (vocalises and smiles)
Father: Let’s get the baby wipes then, shall we?
Daughter: (vocalises and looks after Dad as he goes to get wipes)

They also consider the characteristics of CDS, such as Kuhl's research that suggested children turn to mother who speak with a higher intonation. The parent instinctively speaks in the higher tone, while the child instinctively responds to the higher tone.

Not all cultures have CDS, however. In some (non-western) societies, babies are expected to 'blend in' with the adults, and are talked to and treated like adults. Despite this, they still pick up language at roughly the same time as children who are subjected to CDS: the main criticism of the interactionist approach. However, a child will not learn from television or radio, but needs to be exposed to language, which seems to stress that interaction does play a role in language development. Social interactionists don't contradict Chomsky's theory, but merely add an extra dimension to language acquisition.

Cognitive Development

Cognitive development is the approach that considers children's language acquisition as closely connected to their psychological and intellectual (to give it a posh name 'cognitive') development. The theory states, reasonably enough, that a child can only develop complex utterances, when their intellectual development reaches a point where they can consider such complex ideas.

The forerunner of cognitive development was Jean Piaget. He split language development into four stages:

  1. Sensorimotor period (years 0–2)
  2. Preoperational period (years 2–7)
  3. Concrete operational period (years 7–11)
  4. Formal operational period (years 11 and up)

At each stage, the child's cognitive awareness grows, and their language reflects this, Piaget claimed. In the first stage, the sensorimotor period, for example, he says that children learn to classify experiences in the real world, and therefore, their language is full of concrete nouns, but there are a lack of abstract nouns.

As they gain awareness of new concepts, like time, size, heat and cold, their language expands to express these.

Piaget said that is was futile to teach a child a complex form before it is ready, for it will not be able to grasp the idea. Although there may or may not be something 'innate' in us for learning language, Piaget would argue that forming a complex sentence requires more than the 'rules' of grammar; a child also needs an understanding of the logical relationships involved.

As well as communicating for social purposes, Piaget also said that children had something called egocentric speech - where they speak to themselves with no one else present. He said that this speech was to help them make sense of the world around them.

Thought and Language

A book by the Russian linguist Leo Vygotsky entitled Thought and Language developed on Piaget's idea of egocentric speech. Cognitive and innate linguists would agree that speech is very different from the language of thoughts, and in fact, Pinker labelled thought language as 'mentalese'. They don't agree with George Orwell's prediction that one day, governments will use language to control thought: that without a word to describe it, an idea cannot be expressed or thought.

However, Vygotsky saw egocentric speech as the first stage of thinking. He believed that as a child grows older, and come to understand that it wasn't socially acceptable to speak out loud to oneself (though some of us clearly still haven't quite mastered that...*whistles innocently*), they take this external egocentric speech inwards, and it becomes the basis of our thought process. Although it changes and develops as time passes, becoming much more compressed than normal speech, it is very closely linked to language. His idea is based on the Saphir-Whorf research in the 1930's.

Of course, this research is dated...and Pinker makes a very good argument as to why we have 'mentalese'. Even before children can speak, they can respond to their surroundings, suggesting that there is some kind of language is the mind before speech is learned.

...

That's all you have to learn, really. Not too bad, huh? And quite fascinating.

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Learning to Read

So far, we've looked at things that naturally occur... Now we're moving into the parts of acquisition that are taught: reading and writing. In some cultures, there are no traditions of reading and writing at all, such as in South America, and if we think across to Language Change, for a long time only the upper levels of society learned to read and write.

Imagine if you were faced by this:

Looks pretty much unrecognisable at first glance and only through a process of logical guesses can we attempt to make out any meaning. The numbers, for instance, we recognise and the letter 'A'... so:

One ... .... ... half ten a man ... a woman .... ... ... ... ... .

The + like one between 'a man' and 'a woman' is likely to be 'and' and this is transferable to the s-and = sand. So:

One ... ... ... half ten a man and a woman ... ... ... sand.

'half ten' probably refers to a time, so there will need to be a 'at' in there, before it. But the AB bit suggests 'about'. At about half ten'? In the morning or the evening? Well, it starts with 'N', which suggests 'night':

One night at about half ten a man and a woman ... ... ... sand.

Now, we notice there's a symbol from 'about' later on, representing the 'out':

One night at about half ten a man and a woman ... out ... ... sand.

Now filling in the remaining gaps might become clear...

One night at about half ten, a man and a woman were out on the sand.

The method we just used was a type of decoding and it's the closest we, as readers, can come to understanding the process. Children have to decode a string of seemingly meaningless symbols, and then, when it comes to writing later, reproduce them in a conventional way. The process starts at birth, and is all about interaction. If a child isn't given the right interaction, and exposed to the written art, they will struggle when it comes to schooling. Language acquisition may occur without CDS, but reading can't occur without a parent's help.

So, what can parents do to help?

Well, first of all, children need to be exposed to written language. Adults should point out words in the child's environment, point out words in books, and let the child see that reading is both a pleasurable and necessary activity everyday.

Children also need to develop a love of books. Adults can help stimulate this by reading to the child everyday, and reading aloud in front of the child in general. Books that have predictable words and repeating phrases and refrains are good for interaction, for after a few readings, children will be able to join in and 'read' themselves. Letting children have books on tapes and taking them to the library also help, as does encouraging a child to dictate a story to a parent, who then reads it back.

They need to develop an 'ear' for language, so encouraging rhymes and songs is a good idea. Playing music while children nap also has positive benefits, and Mozart is supposed to be particularly good.

Particularly important for writing, children need to develop good hand-eye coordination. Parents should encourage them to draw, play sorting games, jigsaws and catching games. They should help with crawling and encourage the child to ride tricycles and scooters.

Parents should also show children how to follow lines of a book with their fingers, and these 'tracking' skills can also be helped by patterning games with blocks and beads.

An expanding vocabulary is also important for reading. Parents should introduce new words to children wherever possible, and explains things to the children.

Finally, children need sufficient cognitive abilities - reasoning, problem solving and ability to recall. Parents can help here by discussing what a book might be from its cover, ask questions throughout to check understanding, and talking about the success of the prediction at the end. Also, they might encourage children to find different ways to solve tasks, play games like board games and card games with them, and get children to 'review' their day.

Phew! There certainly is a lot to being a parent! The most important is read, read, read to children and show them a love of books.

Stages of Reading

There are two theories about how reading should be taught: the phonetic theory and the whole word theory.

Phonetics teaches children the regular letter-sound relationships, and encourages them to 'sound out' when they come across a word they don't recognise. The argument for this method is that children have the rational for sounding out words. The argument against phonetics is that blending can't be done, and books that aim at practising a particular sound often sound silly due to being so limited: 'Pat and Dad ran.'

Whole word schemes are based on teaching children to recognise words as a whole. Through this, larger and more meaningful sentences can be produced in books, through the frequently occurring words and some larger words. The only problem is that the word choice is often randomly selected and aren't always linked to a child's own experiences.

Children go through a number of stages as they start to read. They will start to:

  • Recognise letters - usually at the beginning of the name: Elizabeth.
  • Associate letters with sounds.
  • Realise that letters make words.
  • Realise that sounds combine to make words.
  • Learn that a word says the same thing, no matter the book or type of print.
  • Learn that words go together to form sentences.
  • Learn the conventions of punctuation and layout.

When children reach this point, they are well on the way to becoming independent readers.

Books

The exam might ask you to look at pages from a children's reading book. There are various characteristics that you might comment on.

Graphologically, you might consider the text size and word density. As children get older the amount of words per page increases, the font size decreases and the amount of 'white space' decreases. Images also decrease in size and frequency as the stories get 'older'.

For lexis, consider the individual words. Monosyllables or polysyllabic? Are they mostly using a particular phoneme to practice it as we saw in the phonetic scheme of teaching children to read? What semantic fields are there? A general trend with semantic fields is that early books are naturally centered around a child's environment, while older books move away from this and are more imaginative.

Syntax might involve patterning in sentence structure. What types? As the texts get older, they will move from minor to simple, to compound and complex.

The texts, especially those for younger readers who will probably read aloud, might also use phonological features like alliteration and assonance.

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Learning to Write

For writing, children need to be a few steps more advanced. They need to have the good hand-eye coordination we saw in the earlier section as well as the ability to control a pencil, to reproduce the symbols and to hold a thought long enough to write it down.

Children go through a number of stages, and if you're faced by a handwritten piece you should try to identify at which stage the child is.

Phase One - Preparation (until age 5-6)

In this stage, children learn the basic skills of handwriting and spelling. Skills are developed in the following order:

  • drawing and sign writing
  • making letter-like forms
  • writing capital letters
  • writing the child's name and letter strings
  • forming words
  • forming sentences, and finally
  • writing short texts.

Phase Two - Consolidation (ages 6-7 years)

In this stage, as the name suggests, writing catches up with speech. The child will write as they speak, in a colloquial context-bound style. Their writing will also be longer than the first phase.

Phase Three - Differentiation (ages 9-10 years)

Again as the title indicates, in the differentiation stage, children learn to distinguish between speech and writing - that writing may be changed depending on a specific purpose and audience (something you should be well aware of if you plan to do well on ENB5!)

Phase Four - Integration (11 years)

Children begin to develop their own personal styles.

Spelling

"Spelling conventions" is a posh way of saying the rules of spelling. Spelling is a big part of learning to write. J.R. Gentry (1982) suggested there are five stages in learning how to spell, and these depend upon the individual, teaching techniques, etc...

  1. Precommunicative stage: The child realises that symbols can be used to create a message and have meanings. They may, however, invent symbols.
  2. Semi-phonetic stage: The child begins to realise that letters "have" sounds. In writing, they may abbreviate words and use pictures for words they don't know.
  3. Phonetic stage: The child spells through sound-symbol correspondence. They may not be aware that some strings of letters aren't acceptable in English.
  4. Transitional stage: The child uses the basic conventions of the English language system. They start to become aware of the patterns in language spelling, that extends further than using phonetic spellings.
  5. "Correct" stage: Finally, children understands the basic spelling patterns and knows something about word structures, using visual strategies to spell. They have a large automatic spelling vocabulary and can distinguish between homonyms and homophones. They also have control over 'loaded language' (language that attempts to evoke the emotions) and latinate lexis.

At a young age, children may placehold, which means to use some of the letters, usually the consonants, to represent the word, such as "bcs" for "because". It's often done because the child is unsure of the spelling.

What can go wrong with spelling? It depends on the individual.

Though poor spellers with a weak visual memory might have a fairly clear idea of which symbol represents which sound, they don't remember what words look like and get confused when writing them down.

Poor spellers with weak auditory memories have problems understanding which symbols represent which sounds, and can't hear individual sounds in words. They make random guesses at spellings and are often poor spellers as well.

Some errors might include:

  • getting the initial letter wrong - this suggests the child isn't ready to write, and is a serious problem if the child is older than seven,
  • using phonetic alternatives - a common error. There are two types of phonetic alternatives:
    1. a form of spelling is chosen that follows a pattern from another word, but is wrong in the context of the word, such as "nessessary" as in "lesson",
    2. a form of spelling is chosen that isn't possible in English, like "perfikt". This is a more serious error.
  • problems with prefixes and suffixes before children understand how words are put together, such as in "dissappear" and "mispelt", and "makeing". Ance/ence are frequently confused as they sound the same,
  • misspelling unstressed vowels, a far more common mistake than stressed vowels,
  • dropping consonants where they aren't stressed, such as "ofen" and "chrismas",
  • misspelling words that include double or single letters.

Of course, errors might not always be formed through misspelling. If a child produces something on a computer, it may just be a typo!

Graphology

Gaphology as a framework is discouraged in most areas of English Language, as it's seen as the "easiest" framework to analyse. For this section, however, it's essential.

There are a few aspects of handwriting that you might want to comment on.

Ascenders are parts of letters that go up from the line, like in "b" and "d", while descenders are parts of letters that go below the line, as in "p" and "q".

Directionality is an understanding that, in English, we write from left to right and linearity is learning that we write in horizontal lines.

Lower case letters are small letters, while upper case letters are capitals. Do the children use capitals at the beginnings of sentences or randomly in the middle of a sentence? Are they using punctuation correctly?

Other things to look out for is the size of the handwriting, and its density on the page. Generally, the older the child is, the smaller the handwriting, and the more writing there.


National Literary Scheme

For some reason, we're supposed to know something about the four stages of the national literary scheme. They are:

  1. Phonetics
  2. Knowledge of Context
  3. Syntax
  4. Word Recognition

With that, we reach the end of Learning to Write and the end of Language Acquisition. Let me know if there's something I've missed!

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