Cultural and Social Differences (page 2)
In middle-class American English-speaking families, parental behaviors differ based on the number and gender of the children and perceived differences in the children's abilities, and in two- or single-parent households. For example, the conversations of mothers with their twins are five times longer and elicit more turns from all speakers than conversations between mothers and a single child (Barton & Strosberg, 1997). Similar findings are reported for conversations between a mother, her infant, and an older sibling.
Parent-initiated communication with young North American girls and boys also differs in both play and nonplay situations. Adults tend to emphasize useful domestic activities with young girls, while they emphasize more free-ranging exploratory manipulation with young boys (Wells, 1986). It is unclear whether these preferences represent desires of the parent or the child.
Mothers of premature children may continue to use linguistic strategies more appropriate for younger children even when their children are age 4 (Donahue & Pearl, 1995). In contrast, mothers of late-talking toddlers seem to use the same conversational cues as mothers of toddlers developing typically, although both highly controlling mothers and their late-talking children appear to have less conversational synchrony as measured by semantic relatedness and amount of responding (Rescorla & Fechnay, 1996).
When studies control for the effects of socioeconomic level, preschoolers from single-parent homes appear to have better receptive and expressive language and to have fewer communication problems, especially when compared to children from households with married, working parents (Haaf, 1996). This difference may reflect the more intensive, one-on-one communication between the single parent and the children in these homes. In the absence of another adult, a single parent may spend more time talking to a child.
Socioeconomic and cultural factors result in many different child-caregiver interactive patterns. Among lower class families, the lack of resources may restrict opportunities for children, and parental work schedules may limit parent-child interactions.
Approximately 2 million individuals are homeless in the United States (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 1999). Of these about 40 percent are families (National Coalition for the Homeless, 1999). Language, learning, and cognitive delays are common in preschool children.
Data from mothers and children in homeless shelters is complicated by factors such as poverty, health issues, and race and ethnicity. Nonetheless, we find that both children and mothers in homeless shelters exhibit deficits or delays in at least one of the following: auditory comprehension, verbal expression, reading, and writing (O'Neil-Pirozzi, 2003).
In the Deaf culture, among parents and children who are both deaf and for whom American Sign Language is the primary means of communication, motherese is conveyed by sign and facial expression. Use of sign can present a potential problem because facial expression marks both affect and grammatical structures, such as questions. With only limited use of paralinguistic cues, such as higher pitch and exaggerated intonation and stress, a mother's nonvocal facial expression takes on added importance as a conveyer of her intentions and as a device to hold a child's interest. Prior to a child's second birthday mothers of children with deafness use facial expression primarily for affect. There is a shift to more grammatical uses after that point . (Reilly & Bellugi, 1996).
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):
- The role or status of children.
- The social organization of caregiving.
- 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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