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Cultural and Social Differences (page 3)

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

Not all cultures value verbal precocity in children or demonstrate the adult modifications seen in motherese. Among the Kipsigis of Kenya and rural African Americans in Louisiana, for example, comprehension is more important than verbal production in young children; many of the utterances directed to them consist of directives and explanations. Kaluli parents and Samoan parents rarely follow their children's conversational leads. In all the cases, language acquisition does not seem to be slowed or delayed in any way.

Mothers may use other strategies that seem equally effective to those described in this chapter. For example, Kaluli mothers mentioned previously and some Mexican American mothers provide models of appropriate language for specific situations and direct their young children to imitate these models. In situations with other adults, children are directed by their mothers in the appropriate responses. This recycling of appropriate utterances for recurring situations is a language-learning device. Like semantically related adult utterances found in middle-class American homes, these predictable situational responses may be highly comprehensible to a child without complete grammatical knowledge (Snow, 1986).

The expectation of a quiet child does not necessarily reflect children's low status. Within the Apache nation, it is a societal norm to value silence from all people. In general, Japanese parents also encourage less talking by their children, although children are held in very high regard. Nonverbal behavior is more important in Japan than in the United States, and Japanese parents anticipate their children's needs more often, so children have fewer reasons to communicate.

The second factor, social organization of caregiving, also varies widely and reflects economic organization and kinship groupings. In some cultures, such as that of western Samoa, older siblings are more responsible for caregiving than in middle-class American homes. This arrangement is also characteristic of many inner-city households in the United States. There is no evidence, however, that children raised by older siblings learn language more slowly than those raised by adults.

Finally, folk "wisdom" on language acquisition affects the language addressed to the child. The Kipsigis of Kenya believe that a child will learn by himself or herself. Thus, there is no baby talk or motherese. A child is encouraged to participate in conversation through imitation of its mother's model of adult speech. The Kaluli of New Guinea also require imitation from a child in certain social rituals, even though the child may not understand what he or she is saying.

Among both middle- and working-class African American families, a general belief exists that children learn language by listening and watching, thus there is little need to adapt adult behaviors for a child (Scheffner Hammer & Weiss, 2000). Even so, middle-class mothers seem to have a "teaching agenda" that emphasizes production of language by their children. In general, middle-class mothers include more language in their child play and use a wider range of words with their children than working-class mothers (Scheffner Hammer & Weiss, 1999). As a consequence, middle-class African American infants initiate more verbal play and produce twice as many vocalizations as working-class infants. In contrast, working-class mothers have a very limited teaching agenda and interact less with their children.

Children are not limited to direct language input and can acquire language-based knowledge by drawing upon a range of experiences. They can also learn language by indirect means, such as conversational exchanges between other individuals. Children can learn language from speech that is not addressed to them (Oshima - Takane, 1988). This may be especially true of some pronouns, which may be best learned by observing their use in various contexts.

Television can also provide some limited input (Lemish & Rice, 1986). Unlike conversations, television is passive and does not require a response. In addition, the language provided by television is not related to ongoing events within a child's interactive context. Although having adults read to a child positively affects the size of the expressive vocabulary of English- and Spanish -speaking preschoolers, watching television does not have this beneficial effect (Patterson, 2002).

Even with all this variation, children still learn their native languages at about the same rate as middle-class American children. In general, in the United States, most adults treat a child as a communication partner. The language-learning American child is raised primarily by his or her parent(s) or paid professionals or paraprofessionals who model and elicit language. Even within the United States, however, there is no definitive pattern.

Of most importance among children in the United States are maternal stimulation and the overall quality of the home. For example, among African American families, a strong correlation exists between maternal sensitivity, responsiveness, stimulation, and elaborativeness and a child's cognitive and communicative skills at age 1 (Wallace, Roberts, & Lodder, 1998). Although socioeconomic differences exist within the African American community, there is strong evidence of these maternal behaviors among all African American mothers.

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