Cultural, Socioeconomic, and Gender Differences (page 2)
Differences in the interactions of mothers and infants may reflect cultural differences, especially as regards the assumed intentionality of infants to communicate (Toda, Fogel, & Kawai, 1990). Mothers in the United States are more information oriented than mothers in Japan. U.S. mothers are more chatty and use more questions, especially of the yes/no type, as well as more grammatically correct utterances with their 3-month-olds. In contrast, Japanese mothers are more affect oriented and use more nonsense, onomatopoetic, and environmental sounds, more baby talk, and more babies' names. These differences may reflect each society's assumptions about infants and adult-to-adult cultural styles of talking. In the United States styles are direct and emphasize individual expression. Styles in Japan are more intuitive and indirect and emphasize empathy and conformity.
Japanese mothers also vocalize less with their 3-month-old infants but offer, in turn, more physical contact than do mothers in the United States (Otaki et al., 1986; Shand & Kosawa, 1985). This difference is also reflected in more frequent nonverbal responding by Japanese mothers and more frequent verbal responding by U.S. mothers (Fogel, Toda, & Kawai, 1988). The types of utterances to which mothers are most likely to respond also differ. U.S. mothers are more likely to respond to their 3-month-old's positive cooing and comfort sounds, while Japanese mothers are more likely to respond to discomfort or fussing sounds (Morikawa, Shand, & Kosawa, 1988). In response, Japanese mothers try to soothe their infants with speech. U.S. mothers are more likely to talk to maintain attention while Japanese mothers talk more within vocal activities to elicit vocalizations.
Mothers make use of pitch very early. In English, a rising contour is used to gain an infant's attention. This pattern is not universal. For example, mothers speaking Thai to their infants use a falling pitch pattern, and those speaking Quiche Mayan, a native Mexican language, use a flat or falling contour. Maternal speech patterns are acquired behaviors, reflecting the culture in which the mother was raised.
Within North American culture, race, education, and socioeconomic class each influence maternal behaviors toward a child. For example, although inner-city, working-class African American mothers reportedly engage in vocal behavior at about the same rate as middle-class African American mothers, data reveal other more subtle differences (Hammer & Weiss, 1999). Middle-class mothers incorporate language goals more frequently in their play with their infants. In response, middle-class African American infants initiate verbal play more frequently and produce twice as many vocalizations as working-class infants.
While middle-class North American mothers ask more questions, seemingly to stimulate language growth, mothers from lower socioeconomic classes use more imperatives or directives. Similarly, better educated mothers are more verbal. Siblings and peers are more important in the infant socialization process within the homes of minority and lower socioeconomic class families, possibly accounting for the decreased talking by the mother.
Within some groups, children may be expected to learn language through observation, not interaction (Westby, 1986). In one Piedmont, South Carolina, African American community, infants are not viewed as capable of intentional behavior, so their vocalizations are often ignored.
Cultural and socioeconomic differences are not maladaptive. Quite the contrary, they reflect the values and beliefs of an ethnic or other recognizable group. It is not known which aspects of maternal adaptation are most important for a child's communication development. It would be inappropriate, therefore, to suggest that one culture's maternal practices are better than another.
Differences also reflect the gender of the infant. In general, mothers tend to maintain closer proximity to their daughters than to their sons, at least until the age of 4 years. This gender difference is reflected in other ways. At 2 years of age, female infants receive more questions, male infants more directives. With female infants, mothers are more repetitive, acknowledge more child answers, and take more turns. In short, more maternal utterances of a longer length are addressed to daughters than to sons. This difference is not related to the child's linguistic behavior, there being very few if any gender differences in children's language performance at this age.
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