Cultural and Social Differences (page 2)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Cultural differences are evident in the maternal behavior of Japanese and North American middle-class mothers. While American mothers talk more with their children and encourage them to respond, Japanese mothers engage in more rocking, carrying, and "lulling:' In responding to their infants, American mothers use more facial and vocal behaviors, while Japanese mothers are more nonverbal, responding with touch (Fogel et al., 1988). With toddlers, Japanese mothers employ more vocalizations similar to the American English uh-huh, which is not surprising given the importance of omoiyari, maintenance of harmony, in that culture (Maynard, 1986; White, 1989).

The intentions of American mothers are providing information and directing. In contrast, the Japanese mother exhibits fewer of these behaviors, preferring to use nonsense words, sound play, and emphatic routines, such as discussing feelings (Morikawa et al., 1988). Her productions are usually very easy for her child to imitate.

In general, Japanese mothers are less likely to talk about objects; when they do, it is often without the use of the object's name, used more frequently in the United States. Although both American and Japanese mothers use questions frequently, American mothers use them more in the context of labeling. It is not surprising, therefore, that American toddlers have larger noun vocabularies while Japanese toddlers have more social expressions (Fernald & Morikawa, 1993; Hess et aI., 1980).

Still, similarities exist across languages. Both American and Japanese mothers use linguistically simple forms when addressing young language-learning children, repeat frequently, and use intonation to engage the infant (Fernald & Morikawa, 1993). The common motivation for these changes seems to be an intuitive sense of the developmental level of the child.

Cultural differences may reflect three related factors (Schieffelin & Eisenberg, 1984):

  1. The role or status of children.
  2. The social organization of caregiving.
  3. Folk beliefs about how children learn language.

We must also be careful not to assume that the way middle-class mothers in the United States interact with their children is the only way or the most correct way. In general, interactive patterns between children and their caregivers have evolved to fulfill the special needs of the populations and cultures in which they occur.

In the middle-class American family, the child is held in relatively high regard. This is also true among the Kaluli people of New Guinea. In contrast, the relatively lower standing of children reported in western Samoa and among some African Americans in rural Louisiana results in an expectation that children are to speak only when invited to do so (Ochs, 1982). It is important to remember that low status does not mean a lack of affection for children. Within these same rural southern African American communities, a child is not expected to initiate conversation but to respond to adult questions in the shortest possible form. A child is not expected to perform for adults, and most of a child's requests for information are ignored. What expansion exists is an expansion by adults of their own utterances, not those of the child. It is believed in this culture that children learn by observation, not interaction.

Middle-class American mothers talk with their children, not at them. Many maternal utterances consist of comments on topics established by a child through word or action. This tendency to follow a child's conversational lead is evidenced in maternal expansion and extension of the child's utterances. Although these semantically related maternal utterances can enhance language acquisition, it has not been proven that they are crucial to the process. While Chinese and Western mothers both interpret babbling as meaningful, talk about what their children are doing, do not overtly correct, and recognize that their infants understand some words prior to speaking, Chinese mothers use less expansion and conversational prompting and more direct teaching of language (Johnson & Wong, 2002).

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