How Children Learn Language (page 3)
Studies of language development show that children do much more than imitate others as they learn to talk (Gallas et al., 1996; Hoff, 2006; Piaget & Inhelder, 1969; Tabors & Snow, 2004; Weaver, 1996). In fact, while learning to talk, children provide some of the best examples of how they construct all knowledge. If you have been around young children, you have heard evidence that they do more than mimic adult talk; rather, they create their own theories about language. They definitely use the ideas gained from more competent speakers but obviously analyze them in an effort to understand how it all fits together. When Betsy says, “I falled down,” she clearly is constructing her own understanding of language as she practices it, trying out her current theories about how to put words together.
Children have a lot to learn in the process of becoming verbal. Early in life, most babies start to figure out that the sounds people make are a means of communicating with other human beings—a way of expressing their desires, sharing their feelings, and explaining their experiences. Then, babies start to work on the complexities of accurate communication. When they are only about six months old, youngsters who can hear talk will usually imitate speech intonations so that it sounds as if they are saying something understandable. At this point, youngsters still have to work on the specific sounds involved. Before their first year is over, most babies have narrowed their utterances from all the possible sounds to those significant in their environment. Babies in Mexico will trill the r sound, babies in Germany will practice the guttural sounds they hear, and babies in English-speaking countries will learn neither. Before long, typically developing children begin to make the sounds of their language in combinations that mean something specific. As soon as they acquire this ability to communicate with words, they begin to string them together for even greater results.
As they begin to use words in combination, children generally put them together in ways matching the grammatical rules of their language (syntax). English-speaking children put the subject before the verb and, when they become more sophisticated, the object after the verb. However, they also clearly demonstrate their learning process as they reinvent grammar rules, for instance, adding an s to make a plural in foots and mouses and adding ed for the past tense in runned and digged. Young children also are motivated to increase their vocabulary, so they incessantly ask the names of things.
By the time teachers see them in preschool, most children seem to be proficient with language. They generally are able to make themselves understood to others and are fairly good at understanding what others say to them. How did they learn so much in such a short time? They did not learn it by being drilled in the sounds and grammar of their language. They learned by being immersed in language, by using it in their everyday lives. Children use language to communicate—they learn it as they use it in meaningful, authentic ways (e.g., Gronlund, 2006; Nekovei & Ermis, 2006).
The Child’s Process
An old joke says that if we taught children to talk the way we teach them to read, there would be a lot of nontalkers. Yet few people seem to turn the joke around and suggest that if we taught children to read the way we teach them to talk, we wouldn’t have many nonreaders. Teaching children to read the way we teach them to talk is precisely what early-childhood literacy experts are suggesting that teachers do (IRA & NAEYC, 1998; Neuman, Copple, & Bredekamp, 2000; Strickland, 2006).
Therefore, let’s look carefully at how a child learns to talk. Watch the neighbors’ new baby, Betsy, when her parents bring her home from the hospital. Already there is communication between Betsy and her parents. Mostly, she makes random noises and cries to express her discomfort; however, her communications bring responses from her parents, sisters, and brothers. People babble to her in imitation of the sounds she makes, or someone feeds or changes her in response to her cries. She discovers the power of communication. Halliday (1982) says that youngsters “learn to mean” before they learn the forms for expressing their meanings. We see this same sequence as children learn to write.
The social contexts of language give it meaning. When Betsy’s dad bathes her, he talks to her about how warm the water is, how slippery the soap feels, and what cute little toes she has. When her mother dresses her, Betsy hears about her dry diaper, the snaps on her jumpsuit, and her sweet smile. When her big brother Johnny plays with Betsy, he shows her all his toys and tells her what is happening as he drives his toy trucks around her baby seat. Johnny makes her laugh.
Betsy hears lots of talk, both directed to her and surrounding her as her family goes about its daily life. She likes to participate in conversations, and her progress with the forms of language is seen as she utters strings of sounds that make the others in her family stop and listen. These sounds are much like “real” language, but close attention reveals that there are no words in Betsy’s sentence. She has mastered some general sounds of language but not the specifics; she seems to have picked up the intonations, such as those of questioning or scolding, that go with different meanings. Betsy scolded her mom roundly when she saw her mom standing on the counter one day to reach something. She didn’t need words to do it; her tone of voice said it all.
More and more, the sounds Betsy makes are the sounds she hears. One day she makes a “da” sound, and her dad suddenly pays attention and bends over her and repeats, “Da-da.” Betsy makes the sound again, and her dad responds with attention and an expression of pleasure. When Betsy is about a year old, she is able to make several sounds that get a specific response from her family. She may make the same sound to mean different things, which she indicates by her tone, facial expression, pointing gestures, or other nonverbal clues. Her language is contextual. Mostly, the members of her family understand her intent according to the situation. For instance, “Ma-ma” can mean “Where is Mama?” or “I want my Mama!” or “There is my Mama.” Soon Betsy begins to add action words to nouns, allowing her to communicate in two-word sentences. Again, these two-word “telegraph” sentences can mean different things, depending on the context in which they occur. Already Betsy knows that the meaning is inherent not in the words alone but also in the mutual understanding between speaker and listener. This interpersonal aspect of communication remains true even after Betsy has mastered adult-sounding sentences.
The Home Environment
As Betsy’s knowledge of words and her ability to create sentences grow, her previously “good” grammar seems to deteriorate. Her big sister Mandy is concerned because Betsy says, “I goed to the store.” Mandy patiently corrects her and says, “No, you went to the store.” “That’s right,” says Betsy happily as she wanders off. Their mother comforts Mandy by explaining that Betsy will talk correctly before long and that she makes mistakes because she is trying to make sense of grammar right now. Obviously, Betsy is not imitating adult language here. Her errors are clear evidence of her active efforts at making sense of language (Otto, 2002; Tabors, 1997). Betsy’s mistake is an overgeneralization of the rule for the past-tense form. Mandy’s mom asks her not to correct Betsy for fear of discouraging Betsy from practicing language.
When she is three years old, Betsy still finds it hard to make all the sounds in her language. She still can’t make l, r, or s sounds because they take more coordination than she has yet mastered. But, although she may say tore instead of store, she gets upset if someone else says the words incorrectly. Betsy’s mother knows that the baby talk will disappear by itself if others talk to Betsy in adult language rather than imitate her baby talk. Correcting her is a bad idea (Gronlund, 2006); corrections can slow down the learning process because being corrected may create a fear of failure and reluctance to talk. Reluctance to talk gets in the way of practice important to learning.
As Betsy becomes more proficient with language, she has much she wants to say, and she speaks eagerly. Betsy sometimes trips over her words in her rush to speak. Her uncle thinks she is stuttering, so he says, “Slow down, Betsy. Start again and say it slowly.” Although this advice may appear sound, Betsy’s mother asks him not to interrupt Betsy or call attention to the problem. Uncle John gets a valuable lecture on normal nonfluency—how it isn’t stuttering but can become stuttering if a child is made nervous about it (Otto, 2002). Betsy’s mother tells him that the best help he can give Betsy is his undivided attention so she won’t feel rushed.
As the members of Betsy’s family help her learn their language, they don’t have to be told about most of the important things they do to help her learn. Conversations at home have a powerful influence on developing language tools that contribute to future success (Hadaway, 2005; Hart & Risley, 1995). Talking to her and paying attention to her when she talks are the most helpful, especially given their serious efforts to understand her early attempts to communicate. Her brothers and sisters sometimes point to various things when they don’t understand Betsy, saying, “Is this what you mean?” People around her help her communicate beyond what she can do on her own (Dixon-Krauss, 1996; Otto, 2002).
Members of her family also naturally assist Betsy’s language attempts by adjusting how they speak to her according to her changing ability to understand. Apparently, an unconscious accommodation to a child’s emerging language ability guides the length and complexity of adult speech to children (Fields, 1998). Therefore, adults automatically tend to simplify their grammar, limit their vocabulary, repeat words often, and enunciate slowly and clearly to young children.
Betsy’s parents, like many other parents, respond to her speech by adding to what she says and extending her immature sentences. At Betsy’s first birthday, when she says, “Mama!” her mother answers, “You want Mama to come pick you up?” When Betsy is two years old and says, “Daddy gone,” her mother replies, “Yes, Daddy is gone to work now.” When Betsy is three years old and says, “See me riding,” her dad says, “Look at Betsy riding fast on her red tricycle!” These expansions or elaborations of her speech help Betsy increase the complexity of her language (Gronlund, 2006). Such modeling is sometimes referred to as scaffolding (Berk & Winsler, 1995; Fosnot, 2005; Hoff, 2006). Intentional support provided to learners as we engage them in literacy tasks they are not able to accomplish on their own is scaffolded instruction (Leu & Kinzer, 2003; Strickland, 2006).
Story time provides another important component of Betsy’s language development. Storybooks offer a rich source for vocabulary development (M. F. Graves, 2006), for familiarity with a variety of sentence structures (Landry & Smith, 2006), and for understanding the unique forms of written language (Hoff, 2006; Senechal, Ouellette, & Rodney, 2006). Betsy often chooses her favorites again and again. Repeated readings of texts reinforce text language and familiarize children with the structure of different genres (Neuman et al., 2000). Children who haven’t been read to at home will arrive at school unable to process the dialect of book talk. They understand only context-laden language, which utilizes both the situation and nonverbal communication to add meaning to the words. When confronted with the decontextualized language found in books (Snow, 1991; Watson, 2001), these youngsters don’t know how to make sense of it.
The amount and kinds of Betsy’s experiences also influence her language complexity. When she plays outside, she feels the prickly softness of the grass as she rolls on it, she experiences the smooth hardness of the driveway where she rides her trike, and she squeals with delight at the flying sensation when she swings. What a great many things she has to talk about now, and what a great many words she can add to her vocabulary if someone listens and extends her speech as she tells about playing outside.
Not all children have this kind of language environment (Biemiller, 2004; Carlo, August, & Snow, 2005; Hart & Risley, 2003; Tabors, 1997). Some youngsters have parents who don’t speak much English but want their children to learn it. These parents may be hesitant to speak their native language to their children, so the children hear little language at home. Some children live in cultures in which it is appropriate to ignore them when they make sounds and even when they cry. Some come from families in which adults simply do not talk a great deal or they talk in sentences that are short and lack complexity and specificity. Some youngsters do not have their questions answered at home. Some lack the coordination to create speech, some can’t hear language to imitate it, and some are too fearful to speak. These children will not arrive at school with the kinds of language skills that help them succeed academically. They will need more time, more assistance, and plenty of opportunities at school to experience the kinds of language stimulation that are a part of Betsy’s home life. By providing lots of meaningful language opportunities and by increasing the amount of talk in the classroom, teachers can help children who are behind in language development (Nekovei & Ermis, 2006).
More to Learn
Even children who come from language environments that match school expectations have much to learn about language when they reach preschool. They may sound quite mature, but their vocabulary remains limited, as is their ability to deal with different grammatical structures. They can become confused about a new word or a word with several meanings. They may be confused by the difference between ask and tell. Have you ever told children they could ask questions after a guest speaker’s presentation? They don’t ask the speaker questions; they tell their personal experiences! They get confused by questions in general because questions turn around the natural order of a sentence. Passive forms also turn around familiar sentence patterns and result in miscommunication. For instance, when we say, “Betsy was given a tricycle by her dad,” children look at us quizzically and wonder why Betsy’s dad would want a tricycle.
Generally, children do learn a great deal of language in a short time. When they get to school, they must be allowed to continue their oral language development in the ways that have already proved successful for them. They must also be encouraged to learn written language in the same active and interactive ways through which they learned oral language. These include observing and experiencing communication as well as receiving encouragement for their attempts at the process. Adults who accept and value the errors children make as they construct their own understandings are also essential for both oral and written language development. In addition, books and real-life experiences assist children in bringing meaning to oral and written language. Subsequent chapters will include more detailed discussions about how teachers can promote these active and interactive experiences.
It used to be commonly accepted that oral language development preceded written language development and was the basis for learning to read and write. We now realize that oral and written language are even more closely intertwined. Children actually are learning about reading and writing at the same time they are learning to talk. Learning the language of literacy assists oral language learning as much as the other way around.
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