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The present article studies how a 4 year old Chinese girl uses Chinese language to interact with parents, what kinds of language socialization she receives from parents and what emergent literacy skills she has achieved "at a particular moment in time" (S.Besser 2010), all of which ultimately serve as a model for exploration of the language and literacy development of preschool children.
Jing Jing (3;11; 3 years and 11 months), my cousin, is an outgoing Chinese girl and is the subject of this study. She goes to kindergarten in the daytime and is taken care of by her mother at home. Her mother only works occasionally and her father earns monthly salary barely enough to support the whole family in Shenzhen after paying Jing Jing's tuition fee, both of whom have only received senior high school education. Since Chinese Mandarin is Jing Jing's mother tongue and is used by her at home and kindergarten, this study focuses on her Chinese language learning and literacy.
The data are collected in 3 hours by note taking on Mid-Autumn Festival Day from 3 sources: observing the conversations between Jing Jing and her mother around the dinner table and in the supermarket; my interaction with Jing Jing in the house; an interview with Jing Jing's mother about the parents' opinions about raising a language competent and literate child.
Halliday's functions of language contribute to the interpretation of Jing Jing's language (Halliday, 1976). Other literatures are referred to when looking at how the parents use language to socialize the child into the language of community, the child's communicative competence and emergent literacy behaviors as well as her parents' role in her language and literacy achievement.
1. Language Functions
Instrumental function (ibid.)
When language serves of enabling a child to obtain the good or services that he wants, in following case the moon-cakes, it is called the instrumental function of language, i.e. the "I want" function. (C - Child, M - Mother, F - Father, I - the researcher)
C: I want to eat moon-cakes.
M: I will give you moon-cakes once you eat up your meal!
Regulatory function (ibid.)
I: (Pick up a picture book called Little Tadpoles Looking for Their Mother) Is this your book?
C: Yes. Give it back to me! You don't know how to read it.
The regulatory is the "do as I tell you" function used by the child to control other people's behavior. Jing Jing uses regulatory utterance requesting me to give the book back to her.
Interactional function (ibid.)
I: Whose bed is this?
C: It's mine.
I: I want to sleep on it.
C: Ok. I will sleep with you. You can play with my doll.
The interactional function of language, also glossed as the "you and me" function, used by Jing Jing shows that an intimacy grows up between us. Here the bed and her favorite doll become the channels for her to interact with me.
Personal function (ibid.)
There is the personal function of language, the "here I come" function, that makes it possible for the child to express his awareness of himself and make public his individuality.
C: (Stand in front of TV) Mother, look at me! I can whirl a hula hoop.
M: Oh, six circles this time. Wonderful!
C: Yeah! I am number one! You are number two! I am number one!
Jing Jing stands in the middle of the house, trying to grab adults' attention and being eager for praise from adults. After being scolded by her father, she still tries to move back to the front of TV to make others focus on her. "Mother, look at me! I can whirl a hula hoop" and "I am number one" help display her own uniqueness to other people.
Heuristic function (ibid.)
C: I see the moon. It's beautiful. (Walk to another street) Why is the moon missing?
M: The moon is there.
C: Why is the moon different from the one just now? This moon is white. I like the yellow moon. This white moon shines too brightly like the sun.
The heuristic function of language, the "tell me why" function, is the means by which the child explores the environment and learns about things. Jing Jing turns her curiosity of the different appearance of the moon into the questioning form "why is the moon different from the one just now".
Imaginative function (ibid.)
M: Today is Mid-Autumn Festival. We will have dinner first and then go out to view the moon.
C: There is no moon tonight because the moon is covered by the cloud.
M: It will come out once you eat up your meal.
C: Then the cloud will become angry. The cloud waits for too long. The cloud waits for the stars to come out.
The imaginative is the "let's pretend" function of language whereby the child creates "a world initially made up of pure sound, but which gradually turns into one of story and make-believe, and ultimately into the realm of poetry and imaginative writing" (Halliday, 1976). In the above example, Jing Jing uses the imaginative function of language to extend the topic, give emotions to the cloud and make it vivid in her mind.
Representational function (ibid.)
It is this representational function, i.e. the "I've got something to tell you" function that enables language to be used as a means of communicating information to others who don't already know that information and that emerges at a much later stage of the child. In the following example the child shares with me her family's celebration of her big sister's birthday using this function of language.
I: (Point to another picture) What's this?
C: This is a birthday cake. Yesterday we celebrated my big sister's birthday (The big sister is her neighbour).
2. Language Socialization
Ochs (1986) defines the concept of Language socialization as both "socialization through language and socialization to use language". Children acquire language and social-cultural knowledge "through exposure to and participation in language-mediated interactions" (ibid.).
Language used to carry on social rituals and cultural heritage
M: Today is Mid-Autumn Festival. Have dinner and go out to view the moon.
The get-together dinner in the above example is a ritual to be followed by many Chinese families. Parent's word at the beginning indicating the ritual's importance engraves on the child's mind that connections among family members could be maintained and strengthened by chatting around the same table. Family dinner also forms a context in which the child can learn the "idiosyncratic norms and affective inner-working of the family" (Hérot, 2002). Furthermore, the example of Mother's teaching the child a Chinese custom of viewing the moon at the Mid-Autumn night exemplifies the important role language plays in carrying on this particular Chinese cultural heritage and social custom among generations.
In the following example, when Jing Jing's father says, "Don't stand there blocking others from watching TV", he is teaching the child to behave properly in front of a group of people and not to infringe on their rights.
C: (Stand in front of TV) Mother, look at me! I can whirl a hula hoop.
M: I am looking at you. Oh, six circles. That's amazing.
F: Don't stand there blocking adults from watching TV.
(The child reluctantly moves to the side and goes on whirling. Mother's attention is attracted by the festival gala on TV)
This can also be counted as an interactional routine, which is a sequence of exchanges during which the adult's utterance calls forth only a limited set of responses from the child (Boggs& Peters 1980; Hymes 1962, 1971, 1982; Sacks, Schegloff& Jefferson 1974). Interactional routine enable the child to understand the social roles regarded as appropriate for her age and sex in patterned ways (Peters & Boggs, 1986). Every time the child does something inappropriate the father will show authority and anger in his intonation requiring the child to remain silent or give assurances of compliance. Moreover, the "adults watching TV", same as the routinely explanation "this is adults' business, you kids don't understand", reinforces the child's conception of the difference between what children can understand/do and what adults can understand/do.
Teasing, one kind of social play, is also an important part of language socialization. Sachs (1980) concluded that pretend play such as teasing between adult and child serves as a good opportunity for the child's learning of language to structure the world.
M: Big cousin is laughing at you because you are the one who eats the slowest.
C: (smiles, blushes and lowers her head)
M: If you don't eat, I will sell you to the child trafficker.
C: No, you wouldn't. Child traffickers are bad guys.
When mother first says "big sister is laughing at you because you eat too slowly" to embarrass Jing Jing, she is prompting her to eat. Unlike this joke, mother's second utterance could have caused fear or anger if this were the first time that mother had said it. But apparently from Jing Jing's answer, she shows no fear or anger at all since she knows mother has used this threat before and the possibility of mother abandoning her is zero. By repeating teasing, mother indirectly teaches the child to properly deal with her own emotions and equips the child with skills she would need when she contacts with the outside world. As Miller (1986) said, teasing helps children gain a survival tool and exposes them to the potential of language for play, argument and self-defense.
3. Communicative Competence
Communicative competence includes the ability to use speech appropriate for the specific circumstances and to convey what one intends to convey (Ervin-Tripp, 1969). In the language exchanges chosen in this study, Jing Jing can use language appropriate for the situations both to makes herself understood and to communicate with others. She uses the word "because" to build a causal relationship between "there is no moon tonight" and "the moon is covered by the cloud" to support her argument. She also uses cohesion markers, in this case the repetition of words, to continue from one sentence into the next so as to narrate or explain something (Halliday & Hason 1976, Halliday, 1979). For example, in her speech "Then the cloud will become angry. The cloud waits for too long. The cloud waits for the stars to come out", she repeats the word "the cloud" to cohere her explanation of why the moon will become angry. As another example, in her speech "I like footballs. Footballs are for children. Footballs can be kicked", she repeats the word "footballs" so as to connect her explanation of why she loves football.
However, the following example shows that, Jing Jing is still not skillful in choosing between the direct speech/thought presentation and indirect speech/thought presentation to describe a third person's vocal/mental activities (Short and his 4 possibilities of speech/thought presentation continuum, 1996). Although children learn person choices early in life, it would still be difficult for 3~4 year old ones to master the indirect speech presentation "Auntie will ask where we are and say that she cannot find us" due to the lack of a systematic contact with the third person usage in written language. Thus Jing Jing corrects herself immediately using the direct speech presentation "Auntie will (ask) "where are you, I can't find you". In primary years there will be tremendous exposure to third person narratives and Jing Jing will receive guidance in making person choices so as to overcome this difficulty and gain mastery of manipulating different text types (Christie, 2005).
C: Where is Auntie?
M: She went to the electrical area to look at the household appliances. (Keeps moving)
C: (unwilling to move) Where is Auntie? Let's not go farther. Auntie willâ€¦"Where are you? I can't see you! "Auntie will cry.
4. Literacy Behaviors
Reading the meaning before reading the individual characters
Goodman Y. (1984) notes that the development of print awareness in environmental settings is the root of literacy most well developed before attending school. In this print-rich environment, the child is "continuously interacting with, organizing, and analyzing the meanings" of the print (Goodman Y., 1984). To assess Jing Jing's print awareness, I invite Jing Jing to read the characters on the handbag. She knows the noun group should be read from left to right, the correct direction. She accurately locates the first three characters when pronouncing them. But from the fourth one on, the pace she reads is faster than the pace she points to them one by one, which means she doesn't really know the individual characters. Instead she uses the contextual knowledge to decode the text given that fact that Happy Lamb and Grey Wolf is a very popular cartoon in China run on TV almost every day and is Jing Jing's favorite. As stated by Goodman Y (ibid.), children get to know the world before they read the print.
I: Can you read the words on the bag?
C: (Points to the characters from left to right) Xi Yang Yang Yu Hui Tai Lang (Happy Lamb and Grey Wolf).
I: (Show to her the back of the handbag where there are 8 English letters A, B, C, F, G, H, K, L being randomly printed) What are these?
I: Really? Are they ABCD?
C: Yes. ABCD. They are English.
Undoubtedly, this "ABCD" example demonstrates that Jing Jing recognizes that English and Chinese are different in appearance, though she uses ABCD to represent all English letters. Being reminded of the fact that there is still no English literacy class in Jing Jing's kindergarten, we can attribute this differentiation ability to environmental print that she encountered before. As stated by Lin (2007), this can be termed as "a form of meta-linguistic awareness that comes from language contact".
Relating a book to daily life experience
I: (point to a picture in a word book) What's this?
I: (Point to another picture) What's this?
C: This is a football. I like footballs. Footballs are for children. Footballs can be kicked. I can shoot.
I: Do you like basketball? Are basketballs for children?
C: No. Basketballs are not for children. Basketballs can not be kicked. I like footballs.
I: (Point to another picture) What's this?
C: This is a birthday cake. Yesterday we celebrated my big sister's birthday.
Involvement in the print-rich environment makes it possible for children to develop various insights into the functions of written language, getting to know that written language makes sense as well as how it makes sense (Goodman Y, 1984). Here Jing Jing is not satisfied with only reading the book, but also relates it to her daily life experience making it meaningful. She not only uses prior knowledge to interpret what she read, but also uses oral language to explain in detail the written language so as to better understand it.
Memory and illustrations supporting her reading
I: What does the book (Little Tadpoles Looking for Their Mother) tell? Can you read it to me?
C: OK. (Turns to the first 2 pages) Mother Frog gives birth to a lot of tadpoles.
(Turns pages)The tadpoles find their mother missing.
(Turns pages)They start to look for their mother.
(Turns 1 page) Mother Duck says 'I am not your mother.'
(Turns 1 page) Mother Turtle says 'I am not your mother.'
(Turns 1 page) Mother Goose says 'I am not your mother.'
(Turns to the last page) The tadpoles find their mother.
Holding the book correctly, Jing Jing knows the front of the book and starts from the first page one after another. Actually she is retelling the story since she always points at the illustrations while only casts a few glimpses at the text. According to her mother, the book is a required one for children attending Jing Jing's kindergarten and the teacher did read the story to Jing Jing, or more likely, to the whole class. The book is old and has been read by Jing Jing herself for many times. Though she omits several parts of the text such as the weather description, the recount tells exactly the story outline. I conclude that it is mainly her memory and the picture cues that support her text construction. According to Goodman et al. (2007), Jing Jing is using her "earlier repertoire of reading strategies". She opens the book, makes up a story and she reads it.
5. Parents' role
In the interview with Jing Jing's mother, she admits that she finds Jing Jing's speech interesting and imaginative sometimes but she doesn't try to further motivate her to carry on that specific topic. The parents only laugh or call Jing Jing "silly girl" as a response or even ignore what she say when they are busy having their own entertainments. In the data I gathered, the parents didn't give Jing Jing response when she was using the imaginative function of language describing the vivid cloud or exercising the representational function explaining why she likes the yellow moon rather than the white moon. Clay argues that how adults respond to children's speech "determines whether they will continue their effort or not" (Clay, 1998). Ignorance will give Jing Jing an impression that adults are not interested in the topics she brought up and impair her initiative in starting new creative conversations in the future.
The several literacy books bought by her parents and environmental print have great value in helping her achieve the reading comprehension ability demonstrated in the Little Tadpoles Looking for Their Mother book reading example. Nonetheless, it is a pity that Jing Jing's parents seldom participate in literacy activities together with Jing Jing, leaving books to be read by Jing Jing herself. The parents acknowledge that they have no idea of emergent literacy and they think it enough for reading and writing to be taught in kindergarten by teachers. In fact, parents can play a critical role in creating early learning opportunities that have positive impacts on children's emergent literacy development in pre-school years (Ehri and Roberts 2006; Saracho 1997). Lin argues that adults should not only provide literacy materials to the kids, but also serve as facilitators to encourage them to be immersed in the literacy world (Lin, 2007).
In this case study, Jing Jing proves her language ability typical of kids around 4 years old through exercising various language functions. Given the fact that she has already mastered the seven functions of language, she is now in the full linguistic system and is expanding in her capacity to mean and communicate (Christie, 2005; Halliday, various). Her literacy skills demonstrated in the three reading examples again proves that environmental print is influential in the literacy development of early childhood. I strongly recommend that the parents adopt a responsible attitude and be well-prepared to take up their roles in the interlocutions with Jing Jing, in that it is through active language exchanges that the child is motivated to expand her meaning-making capacity and to use language to tackle problems. At this special age, with one year left to be prepared for primary school, it is also important for the parents to be engaged together with Jing Jing in more literacy activities since the emergent literacy knowledge of young children is regarded as some of the best predictors for their reading achievements later at school (Nicolson, 1997; Hecht et al., 2000; Scarborough, 2001; Shatil et al., 2001)