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Thread: Commentary #5

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    Commentary #5

    Language acquisition: a social perspective.

    Alison Sealey from the University of Birmingham in the UK is author of the book Childly Language. Here she talks from her perspective as a sociolinguist on the ways in which children learn to make use of language to express social meanings.

    Alison Sealey
    I’d been working in teacher education and dealing with primary school teachers who were interested in children’s language and literacy and I’d noticed that while there is a great deal of research in the earliest years of children’s coming to terms with language and learning to use language, there’s very little research in the period from roughly five years old to puberty and adolescence when the research picks up again as children establish their identities as individuals and members of teenage groups and so on.

    And so I was interested to see how children negotiate the relationships of childhood, the social role of being a child and how those phenomena are represented in discourse about childhood in English speaking texts and so on.

    And I went on to look at various ways in which children are represented and also to do some research with children aged between about eight and ten on the way they talk to each other, to their pets, to their toys, to their family because I think that sheds some light on what it means to be a child who’s already developed a lot of ability with language but still isn’t considered a fully fledged member of the adult community which we tend to take as the norm.

    The drive does seem to be for children to communicate, to take their place in an already existing world starting with the family and moving outwards. And so I think it’s important to remember that when children are learning language, while they are learning it’s something which they’re always doing in the present and for a purpose. We may not always understand what that purpose is and it may not always be obvious in their linguistic output. But it does seem as though the driving force is a social one. And that’s why I think it’s helpful sometimes to phrase the idea as ‘here are children talking’ rather than, ‘here is an example of the acquisition of language or the development of language’ or whatever researcher’s prospective phrase we might choose to use.

    The idea of linguistic competence is usually contrasted with the idea of communicative competence and I think that the emphasis on the one hand is on the linguistic system itself as though it were a self-contained set of norms and rules and expectations which can be divorced from social context. Whereas the idea of communicative competence highlights the fact that when we’re using language we’re always using it in order to do something or other, to achieve something or other and to either establish or maintain or challenge our relationships with each other.

    And while obviously parents and teachers in particular are concerned that children should acquire linguistic competence, in other words that they should become familiar with the vocabulary and the grammar and the sounds of their language, it’s also very important and probably a driving force for children themselves that they should be communicatively competent, in other words that they should use these linguistic resources for communicative ends in order to take their place in the world, make their way through the world, make their relationships with people, express their own interests, take account of the interest of others and so on. So from that perspective you would see language as a resource, which is deployed in the process of communication with the world around you and the people in it.

    One way of thinking about these sorts of issues, about a social approach to language and how learners acquire language or develop their language, is to separate out for the purposes of thinking about these things - although in fact they’re never really separate - three dimensions, the individual as an agent who has interests, who has priorities, who needs to grow up and make their way in whatever world they’re born into.

    A second one is the language system itself which you could see as a cultural resource. Something that speakers draw on as it’s made available to them and as they develop it. And a third one being the social context into which they’re born. We’re always born into an already existing social context and that context is structured, so that some people are more powerful than others. Generally speaking, adults are more powerful than children. In many societies men are more powerful than women on the whole. Some people are more able to access educational resources readily than others. Some people are born into an environment where English is their first language and others if they want to make use of English have to learn it as an additional language. So there are all sorts of ways in which the social context into which any learner and speaker of language is born are structured.

    And then there are the rules and structures and constraints and enablement’s of language itself. So that there are certain things which we routinely say, which children routinely hear being said and which they’re likely to reproduce themselves. And other things they might say which would necessarily be marked or unusual or even unacceptable. So it’s a constant set of negotiations between the speaker as a social agent, the context in which they find themselves of structured social relations and the resources available to them, whether that’s a single language variety, if there is such a thing, or in the case of children growing up bilingual a switching between different varieties that are available to them or later in life learning additional varieties which may be of use to them as a cultural resource or which may have other cultural meanings for them.

    So all of those things I think are relevant when we’re thinking about how it is that children learn and develop and make use of language in all its many forms.

    We obviously have to put the emphasis somewhere or another, we can’t deal with the whole range of structured social relations, individual’s development, the range of varieties of using language that are to be found around the world and have been found across time. We can’t possibly consider all of those things in depth and learn anything useful or understand anything useful.

    So we necessarily focus our gaze on some aspect of these things, or aspects of these things. And I think this is why there are researchers doing extremely interesting work on things like the way the brain is doing its thing behind the scenes as people process language. There are other people doing ethnographic work looking at what it is that children are being socialised to believe is appropriate or to need to resist in terms of appropriacy. And people looking at the interactions between those things.

    So research has to take account of these very different aspects of language and how children learn it. And I think each area has something to contribute to our understanding.
    Last edited by Neo; 11-01-2013 at 09:38 PM.
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  2. #2
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    1,200 words to say what? Is she a teacher by any chance?

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    "So we necessarily focus our gaze on some aspect of these things, or aspects of these things. And I think this is why there are researchers doing extremely interesting work on things like the way the brain is doing its thing behind the scenes as people process language. There are other people doing ethnographic work looking at what it is that children are being socialised to believe is appropriate or to need to resist in terms of appropriacy. And people looking at the interactions between those things."

    Who ever wrote this has no business in language education or commentary of such.

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    Quote Originally Posted by OhOh View Post
    1,200 words to say what? Is she a teacher by any chance?
    You don't understand it? Is your difficulty reading or comprehension.?

    Language acquisition can be divided between cognitive and social factors.
    This is her view of social acquisition and is in contrast to commentary #4 which covers cognitive acquisition.
    Last edited by Neo; 11-01-2013 at 11:27 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Necron99 View Post
    "So we necessarily focus our gaze on some aspect of these things, or aspects of these things. And I think this is why there are researchers doing extremely interesting work on things like the way the brain is doing its thing behind the scenes as people process language. There are other people doing ethnographic work looking at what it is that children are being socialised to believe is appropriate or to need to resist in terms of appropriacy. And people looking at the interactions between those things."

    Who ever wrote this has no business in language education or commentary of such.
    It's a transcript from an audio commentary.
    That's how people talk. Speech does not share the same academic practices as written communication. She is literate enough to not use partials or fragments, and no doubt assumes her audience is capable of extrapolating the meaning of 'thing'.

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    It is, as you belatedly say, a transcription.

    A dry and dusty monologue. I hope she gave everyone a handout for them all to quote from. Most professional speakers would have the speech written, checked for accuracy and a practise run undertaken; with somebody indicating the requirement for pauses, emphasis etc.

    My take is that very few people would form any opinion, rather they would fall asleep.

    Her conclusion: more research is necessary! What's new in academia?
    Last edited by OhOh; 12-01-2013 at 12:03 AM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Neo View Post
    You don't understand it? Is your difficulty reading or comprehension.?
    Quote Originally Posted by OhOh View Post
    My take is that very few people would form any opinion, rather they would fall asleep.
    A bit of both then. Well don't try commentary #4, that'll really vex you

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    Quote Originally Posted by Neo View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Neo View Post
    You don't understand it? Is your difficulty reading or comprehension.?
    Quote Originally Posted by OhOh View Post
    My take is that very few people would form any opinion, rather they would fall asleep.
    A bit of both then. Well don't try commentary #4, that'll really vex you

    She is just basically rephrasing what Vygotsky said all those years ago. A lot of academics in the education faculties just re-iterate the obvious.

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