The Acquisition Of Language By The Child English Language Essay

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Language is related to this process in a number of ways. In the first place, acquiring the mastery of speech and, in more advanced cultures, the techniques of reading and writing, constitute a prerequisite to full participation in one's society. Second, language is theprincipal channel through which social beliefs and attitudes are communicated to thegrowing child. Third, language describes and clarifies the roles which the child will becalled upon to identify and to enact. Finally, language initiates the child to the esprit decorps of his speech community or any special subdivision of it, and provides the feeling ofbelonging.

The Acquisition of Language by the Child

The human infant begins its existence as a self-centered organism, unaware of anyphysical or social limitations on the satisfaction of its needs and impulses. Adults in allsocieties acknowledge the child's innocent egotism and supply its demands in accordancewith their local views as to what is proper under the circumstances.

During this early stage, the child is subjected to some verbalism on the part of the adults towhose care he has been entrusted. Such utterances are not, however, aimed at the child asa form of communication, but rather serve the emotional needs of the adult speakersthemselves. Nevertheless the child becomes used to the sounds of human speech, learningto associate them with the manipulations of its physical personality by others. Thus suchoperations as rocking, fondling, washing, nursing, dressing andputting to sleep become linked with specific rhythmic and phonetical patterns.

From the first days of life, the child is capable of producing a variety of distinguishablesounds and monosyllabic cries. These are used apparently in response to specific needs,such as hunger, or to diffuse internal urges. At some point the discovery is made that thesenoises have the faculty of bringing into play another person or persons, and thus beginsawareness of the social use of phonation. Adults attracted by the child's call usually supplysome gratifications (food, dry clothes, and the like) and so establish in the child's mind adim notion connecting its cries with ultimate tangible satisfactions.

Sigmund Freud maintained that the ability to manipulate adults and to secure pleasurablesensations through the use of speech establishes in the minds of growing children aninarticulate but firm belief in the "omnipotence of words." This infantile belief persiststhrough the person's whole life and, combined with other factors, accounts at leastpartially for several important behavioral phenomena. The latter include, for example, thewidespread use of language in magic (in the form of spells, incantations, ritual formulae,and so on); the well-known human inclination to substitute words for action; thetendency to ascribe "thingness" to purely mental constructs and abstractions such asculture, conscience, and love (known as reification); and the exceedingly commonirrational belief whereby things and their names are related to each other in a natural,necessary, and inseparable manner.

The phonetical endowment of the human infant is that of a potential polyglot. Regardlessof his race or nationality, every baby spontaneously produces a rich collection of sounds. Atrained phonetician listening to this babbling can often identify vocal elements which havea legitimate place in some of the most remote languages of mankind--from Welsh toEskimo. The adults surrounding the child respond to and encourage only those soundswhich happen to belong in their own much more restricted phonetical system. And as thechild's verbal interaction with adults and imitative behavior take ascendance over initialautistic impulses, he discards the "alien" sounds and gradually becomes a phoneticalreplica of the adults in the group.

Some time before the child has learned to associate sound clusters with specific meanings,he acquires the faculty of distinguishing among various emotional tones injected by adultspeakers into their words. Otto Jespersen reports that a scolding intonation attached toaffectionate words makes most babies cry, whereas an affectionate tone given to a rebukeelicits a smile.1

The dividing line between such preverbal reactions and true speech is far from beingclear-cut. Thus a baby may succeed in uttering a meaningful word without givingevidence of understanding it. On the other hand, as allparents know, children learn to understand some of adult conversation before they canspeak. The old saying that "little pitchers have big ears" is an expression of this ancientdiscovery.

Students of children's speech have gathered exhaustive information on the growth of thechild's vocabulary, as well as observations of the typical phonetic, semantic, and structuraltrials and errors that children face in all human societies (although with specific variantsfor different languages). The critical point in this learning process seems to be the centralidea of language, that is the relationship between sounds and meanings. As soon as thechild has grasped this basic notion its vocabulary begins to grow by leaps and bounds. It isnot unusual for a bright three-year-old to possess a vocabulary of 2,500 words. However,the growth of the vocabulary may frequently come to an end by the time the child is 10 or12 years old if there is no intellectual stimulation in its environment. Such a person maygo on living on this lexic capital for the rest of his life.

Language and Social Roles

Some time before they have reached the age of four, most children become aware of thepatterned character of human behavior. In a sense they discover that "all the world's astage" and begin to play at being mother, the corner policeman, Santa Claus, or even anairplane or a tiger (properly anthropomorphized). They argue with their playmates overthe operational details of role behavior ("kings tell everyone what to do," "gangsters don'tsay 'please'") and show sensitivity to the incongruities of clothes ("you can't wear awedding dress and stay barefoot") or gestures. The identification and the enactment of allthe roles within the compass of their experience are invariably associated with appropriatemonologues, dialogues, and other patterns of speech.

As their knowledge of the world and their general sophistication increase, they expand thisrole-playing approach to a broader repertoire of situations and a larger cast of characters.But it is at this point that society steps in and interrupts the free flow of projective fantasieswith practical routines, social etiquette, school attendance, and other rituals. Role-playingability is not discarded completely but becomes rechanneled into socially designedfunctional patterns.

Something of the actor survives in most human beings who have had a reasonablygregarious childhood. Frequently dissociation occurs between the verbal and thenonverbal components of role-playing. Most societies impose greater restraints ongestures, postures, and the costume of the person, while leaving the verbal part relativelyunhampered by excessive controls. Thus, on the adult level, play acting (particularly incivilized societies) is largely verbal in nature and roles and attitudes are expressed througha variety of phonetic, prosodic, semantic, and syntactic devices.

Language and the Image of the Self

George Herbert Mead, social psychologist and philosopher, has called our attention to thefact that a child capable of acting another person's part or impersonating a dialoguebetween himself and another person learns in this manner to view himself as an object. Inthe process he becomes aware of how others see him and what they expect of him. Thepsychologist William James, even before Mead, had coined the expression "social self,"which he defined as the sum total of other peoples judgments of what we are. And, earlyin this century, Charles H. Cooley contributed the now-famous expression "looking-glassself," again referring to ourselves as we appear reflected in other people's eyes. These threescholars point to the same phenomena, which can be summarized in these terms: (a) allhuman beings are aware of being perceived and evaluated by others; (b) they form anidea of how they are viewed by others; (c) they are preoccupied with being viewedfavorably; (d) they keep checking on their fluctuating value on the interactional "stockmarket"; (e) their own image of their selves is thus largely a socially produced andinternalized conception. What is the place of language in these typically humanpreoccupations?

Although social judgments may express themselves through various non- verbal channels,they usually reach us in the form of words. There are literally thousands of epithets, someof which are viewed as more desirable than others. Anxious to gauge other people'sopinion, men become sensitive to compliments, flattery, gossip, innuendos, irony, words ofendearment, titles, terms of address, ranks, official citations, conversational undertones,and many other linguistic symbols of social judgment. An exceptional person may treatthe social image of himself with relative indifference and disdain. On closer analysis, eventhose who presumably ignore their social environment have simply transferred their pointof reference to another group whose judgment they do respect.

When in the process of self-appraisal, an individual finds himself falling short of his imageof the self, his imperiled self-respect may tempt him to resort to evasions, excuses, andrationalizations. In such a case, verbal defenses become his most effective weapons. An"unloved spinster" is redefined as a "dutiful daughter," an "unsuccessful artist" as a"pioneer who is far ahead of his contemporaries," a moral "felony" is turned into a moral"misdemeanor." The unpalatable and the painful are verbalized out of conscious existenceand the threat of social defeat is temporarily removed.

Language and the Process of Enculturation

When we speak of socialization we are thinking mainly of all the training and experiencethe child must undergo in order to become a well-functioning member of its group.Socialization is an evolution from an autistic and

self-centered existence to one based on a minimum of reciprocity and mutuality.

But there is another way of looking at the formative and preparatory years in the life ofthe individual. We know that the functioning of human societies is not founded on a set ofinnate, instinctive, and inherited abilities and skills, sufficient for human survival.Individuals and societies are fundamentally dependent on technological devices (hunting,fishing, farming, mining, science, and so on) for facing the physical world and on socialconventions in solving the problems of life in groups. Both these devices and conventionsvary from one society to another, keep changing from generation to generation, diffuseamong human groups through borrowing and imitation, and form a collective possessionwhich every new member of a group has to learn to understand and use. This collectivetreasury or legacy of technical and social inventions is referred to as the culture of thegroup. Being introduced to the culture in the course of growth and maturation constitutesthe process of enculturation.2

The dividing line between the concepts of socialization and enculturation should not beviewed too rigidly. The two are representative of two different ways of looking at the samephenomenon. In the process of socialization the child has more opportunities for makingpersonal discoveries: for example, if you hit another person you are likely to get hit back;flattery has a mollifying effect on others. In enculturation the stress is more heavily onlearning and imitation--one does not "discover" how to manufacture a harpoon or makebuttonholes or dance the waltz or form the plural of nouns. All these things must betaught by those who know them already either directly or by providing models forimitation. Language plays a very prominent role in this process of formal and informalschooling--which basically is enculturation.

To begin with, language itself is one of the major components of the culture the individualis called upon to master. In the second place, language provides a vehicle for thetransmission of technical inventions as well as social conventions. Then, as we pointed outin the first chapter, verbal symbols enable man to transcend the immediate and the real.This process does not occur haphazardly and erratically, but within the framework ofculturally and linguistically circumscribed possibilities. The ghosts of the Manus ofMelanesia3 and the guardian spirits of the Crow Indians of North America4 are asdifferent as the cultures and the languages of these two groups. Thus what we callenculturation goes beyond training in social reality, providing also an introduction to theworld of memories, hopes, and fantasies peculiar to a given culture.

Language and the Thinking Habits of Men

It is sometimes assumed that language is similar to a set of tools which a man can ownand use as he pleases to perform specific tasks. Words and

grammatical forms are stored away in a mental "tool shed" close at hand, to be employedwhen the need for them arises. It is assumed, furthermore, that ideas are born in theminds of men independent of speech, and that only the desire to communicate themcauses men to look for appropriate linguistic media. Language is thus assigned asubordinate and auxiliary function.

This viewpoint met with partial criticisms on the part of a few nineteenth-centuryphilosophers of language. One of them, Friedrich A. Trendelenburg, called attention toAristotle's extreme dependence on the specific features of the Greek language. Others wentas far as to say that if Aristotle had been born in China, he could not have formulated thesystem of ideas which we associate with his name. Today, thanks to the labors of severalanthropologists trained in linguistics, we have a wealth of data pointing to the closecorrelation between the thought patterns of men and the peculiarities of the languagesthey use. One anthropologist, Benjamin Lee Whorf, in addition to his investigations ofspecific cultures, presents a very clear formulation of the general implications of thesefindings.

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. Thecategories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do notfind there because they stare every observer in the face. . . . We cut nature up,organize it into concepts, and ascribe significance as we do, largely because weare parties to an agreement to organize it in this way--an agreement thatholds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of ourlanguage. . . .5

Dorothy Lee has applied this general point of view to linguistic materials taken from theTrobriand Islands (made famous by the studies of the late British-Polish anthropologistBronislaw Malinowski). Some of her findings are germane to this discussion.6

The Trobrianders, in contrast to ourselves, are not concerned with change or becoming.They disregard temporal connections between objects. In fact their language has notenses. Neither does it possess adjectives. The same object with changed attributes issimply defined by another word. There is no tendency in this language to analyze eventsinto means and ends. In brief, what Lee calls "lineal" orientation is played down by theTrobrianders. All this does not mean that the group has no firm footing in the real world.Quite the contrary, they have been most efficient in their gardening, housebuilding,navigation, fishing, and other practical activities. The peculiarities of their language arerather an expression of their world view and their system of values. The child born into theTrobriand society, through the medium of his language, is taught subtly to viewlong-range perspectives, calculating behavior, goal-oriented striving, interested attitudes(such as gifts in courtship), and preoccupation withself-advancement as inferior to static states of being, unanchored in time and space.

This brief account is not designed to summarize Dr. Lee's stimulating discussion oflanguage and values (which the interested student may read by consulting the referencesat the end of this chapter). We have cited the Trobriand materials for the more limitedpurpose of illustrating important interconnections between linguistic peculiarities andspecific types of cultural orientation.