Research Paper (undergraduate), 2006
25 Pages, Grade: 1.3
There are many ways of talking to children and preverbal infants and also a great variety of opinions about how important the child’s environment is or if it plays a role at all. The question is not only how and why children understand grammatical forms and language (Ochs & Schieffelin 1995: 73), but also which role other aspects, such as Parentese and Baby Talk, play. Are they necessary or totally unimportant? Should parents talk to their children at all or is it senseless because they do not understand what the parents say to them? Some people are of the opinion that Parentese only plays “a minimal role” (Garnica 1977: 63) whereas other people think that the verbal environment is important. In how far is the acquisition of language “the result of a process of interaction between mother and child” (Snow 1977: 31)? By explaining some aspects of talk to children, such as Parentese, Baby Talk, expansion, correction, imitation and by giving examples of children being socialized through language, the question about which role these aspects really play in first language acquisition should be answered.
Not every society has the same way of communicating with infants and young children. The way children are addressed differs in each society because of different opinions about the child’s ability to understand language or participate in a conversation. To contrast these differences it is important to compare societies which support contrary views about this, for example, the USA, Canada and Europe with other societies.
In “middle class communities” (Ochs & Schieffelin 1995: 77) of the United States, Canada and Europe, addressing infants and young children during a conversation is a widespread phenomenon (Ochs & Schieffelin 1995: 77). Although the children do not understand or respond to what is said to them even though parents use a simplified language, for example, high pitch or exaggerated intonation, parents treat them as participants of every-day communication (Ochs & Schieffelin 1995: 77). This simplified language is called ‘Parentese’ or ‘Baby Talk’. Sometimes the parents respond in place of the infant because the child is not able to do so:
The parents act as if the children had answered by imitating them although the children do not even understand what is said to them. In such communities the children are mostly together with their parents or nurses and rarely take part in adult-to-adult talk. Thus they are no “overhearers of nonsimplified language” (Ochs & Schieffelin 1995: 78) but addressees in conversation with their attachment figures.
In other societies, for instance, the “K’iche’ Mayan” (see Appendix 7.1) or “African-American working class families in the town of “Trackton” in the Piedmont South Carolina region of the United States” (Ochs & Schieffelin 1995: 77), children are not addressed in any conversation until they can produce language themselves since the adults are of the opinion that it was strange to talk to preverbal infants instead of choosing another adult “as suitable partners for regular conversations” (Ochs & Schieffelin 1995: 77). The Javanese (see Appendix 7.2), for instance, do not even look the infants in the eyes because they
do not talk to them very much and when they do so they think that the child would not understand the utterances anyways (Ochs & Schieffelin 1995: 78). To them children are not good for conversation but “objects of great pride and affection” (Ochs & Schieffelin 1995: 77). In such communities parents and other adults do not use any kind of simplified language because to them children are no addressees but simply overhearers of language between adults (Ochs & Schieffelin 1995: 78).
It becomes obvious that the differences between communities such as the USA, Canada and Europe, and communities such as the K’iche’ Mayan and the Javanese, lie in the facts that in the first example of a community children are participants in every-day conversation whereas the children of the other communities are more overhearers and the language spoken to them is neither addressed to them nor modified in the way it is elsewhere.
As already mentioned, not all communities use simplification by modifying words and utterances whereas other communities only rarely do so. But also in those societies in which simplification exists there are great differences, either in the frequency of simplification or in the way words and utterances are modified.
In communities such as the US and European working- and middle-class as well as the Tamil (see Appendix 7.5) and the Inuit (see Appendix 7.6), simplification is a widespread phenomenon (Ochs & Schieffelin 1995: 78). These simplifications involve, for instance, modifications of phonology, morphosyntax and discourse (Ochs & Schieffelin 1995: 78). Simplifications of that sort are also known as Parentese or Baby Talk. Its purpose is not to teach the child but it is a way to communicate with preverbal infants and young children, “to understand and be understood, to keep two minds focused on the same topic” (Ochs &
Schieffelin 1995: 79). Most parents who use Parentese and Baby Talk are of the opinion that it will help the child to become an appropriate speaker and to be able to actively participate in conversation (Ochs & Schieffelin 1995: 79). It becomes obvious that this kind of simplification is used because parents think that it supports the child’s language acquisition and that it is important for the child to become a good speaker and a “central participant[s] in conversational exchanges” (Ochs & Schieffelin 1995: 79).
Other communities such as the Javanese, Kaluli (see Appendix 7.3) and Samoan (see Appendix 7.4) also use simplification with the difference that their modifications are restricted to discourse and self-repetition (Ochs & Schieffelin 1995: 78). In contrast to the Tamil and Inuit, for instance, such communities do not try to teach the children because to them children are no participants of any kind of conversation (Ochs & Schieffelin 1995: 80). They are more passive, for example, and preferred as being “observers and overhearers” (Ochs & Schieffelin 1995: 80) which means that they are not involved in conversation which is not simplified because they mostly listen to adult-to-adult talk. The children are rarely spoken to but when they are, as already mentioned, only a few simplifications occur.
It becomes clear that there are different ways of simplifying language, either by modifying phonology, syntax and discourse or by only modifying discourse and using self-repetition. Although the methods of these communities are not the same, the outcome is equal. The acquisition of language among both cultures is nearly the same, none of these strategies is better than the other one (Ochs & Schieffelin 1995: 80).
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