Seminar Paper, 2001
14 Pages, Grade: 2 (B)
2 Linguistic behavior in childhood
2.1 Family and social class
2.2 Language in School
2.3 Gender-based differences
2.4 Peer talk
3.1 Age-grading and language change
5 Works Cited
Language is one of the most powerful emblems of social behavior. In the normal transfer of information through language, we use language to send vital social messages about who we are, where we come from, and who we associate with.
Since the 1960s, a number of sociolinguistic studies have been carried out to reveal the significance of the interplay between language variation and language change and the effects of social factors on the language of different speaker groups within a speech community. Regional variation and variation due to social class and gender differences have been much discussed in those studies.
To a lesser extent sociolinguists have focused on age, ethnicity and networks as social factors. In the following, I will try to describe such differences and the effects of age on the language of speaker groups, namely children and adolescents. I will deal with the linguistic characteristics of both age groups as a steady and continuous development rather than comparing both stages of life with each other.
According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, “childhood” is – very obviously - “a time or state of being a child.” Although there are children around in everyday life, people don’t seem to place great importance on their linguistic behavior. But indeed, the basis for future linguistic or communicative competence is set during those first years in life. And, as I will discuss later, this development has its peak during the period of adolescence.
Children normally go through several important stages: the preschool years, mainly surrounded by family members, the time they spend at a kindergarten, and the school years, where peer relations and other factors gain huge importance, not only socially but also linguistically.
I won’t go into deeper detail concerning the physical part of language acquisition in school or preschool children. Generally it can be said, that “most children by the age of four or five (and many even earlier) can correctly pluralize () and the major infrastructure of language has been completed by the ages six to eight (..)” (Thinkquest). From the sociolinguistic view children “appear to learn it so that they can join the conversation instead of using language to look after their physical needs” (Chambers 152).
It is important to find out “how language assists the child to become a full fledged member of society” (Cook and Gumperz 37). Sapir explains that “language is a great force of socialization, probably the greatest that exists,” (Chambers 152). Speech acts in early childhood are mainly formed by the influence of the family. As regards sociolinguistic variation, young children acquire the vernacular of their local area mainly due to influence from the caregiver models and the influence from outside the family is relatively limited (Romaine 1984). The term "vernacular” could then be defined as “forms, [that] tend to be learned at home and used in informal contexts” (Holmes 146).
Children grow up in different surroundings, in different social environments. Rogers mentions the first important factor that has huge influence on an individual’s speech which is, from her point of view “Without a shadow of doubt [the most formative influence upon the procedures of socialization, from a sociological viewpoint, is] social class”(332). And this certainly holds true. Social class is hard to identify, but generally one could say that it is determined by differences in income, education and/or social prestige.
A study, carried out by Reid on 11-year-old schoolboys in Edinburgh showed, that “(...) there are features of their speech which relate in a systematic way to their social status and to the social context in which their speech is produced” (Chambers 155). Their speech was recorded to examine the use of the variable (ng) and its variants; the results showed that their vernacular correlated with the social class they came from. The most innovative and non-standard forms were used by lower classes, while middle-class boys used more standardized speech. When you compare those results with the linguistic features of adult speech, it is obvious that this is somehow the same. Women, especially in middle class, tend to use stigmatized forms and are “more sensitive than men to overt sociolinguistic values (Chambers 129). Babies and small children are often categorized as babblers, not yet able to communicate appropriately. Surprising results were brought up in 1989 by Wolfram, who examined that already 36 months-year-old infants use socially significant variables (Chambers 157).
The above mentioned studies were only two out of a few that could help to modify one of the first sociolinguistic theories which was published in the 1960´s, the six stages of language acquisition by Labov. In his opinion, language acquisition is a mere process of acculturation, which means that children, as they grow older, adopt their language to the one of their parents, towards standardization. It also basically explains that pre-adolescent children do not control the full resources of sociolinguistic variability until adolescence.
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