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Language development

Some thoughts on language development

An understanding of the manner in which a child develops spoken language skills provides a clue to the kind of information that a child requires in order to learn a complex skill such as reading.

First-language ( language the child speaks first. It need not be the mother-tongue) learning proceeds in an extremely rapid, smooth, and predictable sequence, indicating that a child naturally uses language. Here, it is not necessary for a child to be told what the rules of language are in order to acquire them. A great majority of children develop a set of rules for themselves within the space of about two years.

During the first few years of life children find no particular difficulty in learning any language.

Some linguists and psychologists use the metaphor that the child learning to talk is "testing hypotheses", literally conducting linguistic experiments, to discover specifically what kind of language is talked around him.

Contrary to popular parental belief, the child is not learning words and then finding meanings for them. Instead he is acquiring or inventing words to meet his own particular requirements and these may or may not have a close relation to adult language.

A child does not put his words together arbitrarily in his first sentences—he has a system, a rule. Children later change their ways to conform to adult language, but they do this by starting with a language of their own, not by starting from nothing. Their language is always systematic.

All the time a child is speaking a rule governed language of his own. At no time does he just throw words together randomly, and at no time can he be said to be slavishly imitating an adult model. Those rules which are productive in the construction or comprehension of sentences in adult language are retained, the others the child progressively modifies.

He hears a sentence and tries to determine a possible rule by which it could be produced. Basically, adults supply the child with two types of information which may be termed general and specific. They capitalize on the child's implicit knowledge of the way to learn by keeping him exposed to plenty of adult language. This is the general information that a child requires. The adult who does not help his child is the one who tries to speak only "baby talk". Specific information is best given to a child only when he needs it. The child does not want, and cannot use, little snippets of information thrown at him arbitrarily in a formal learning situation. Instead, he needs feedback to tell him whether he is observing the significant differences of his language in a particular situation. The simplest way to provide feedback at the right time is perhaps to regard every utterance made by a child as having a double function, the first being the expression of a need or feeling, and the second the test of a rule.

A child wants information about a grammatical rule when he uses it. Many parents follow this rule unknowingly when they engage in the game which has received the technical name of "expansions". In this transaction, parents take a sample of child speech and expand it into adult form. For example when the child says ‘want milk', the parent "expands" the statement into ‘You want some milk, do you?’ or ‘May I have a glass of milk, please?’ An adult expanding child language is providing a specific adult-language surface structure for a deep structure that the child already has in his mind. It is not simply a matter of "correcting", but of giving information so that the child can verify a rule that he has just applied, at a time when he can relate it to the appropriate deep structure.

A major insight to be gained from the study of spoken language development is that we cannot expect a child to learn simply on the basis of the rules that adults try to feed to him.

 

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