Social Aspects of Language Acquisition - Language Socialization and Grammatical Development

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

20 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Children as Addressees
2.1 Differences in Cultures
2.1.1 USA, Canada and Europe
2.1.2 Other Societies
2.2 Differences in Simplification
2.2.1 USA, Europe, Tamil, Inuit
2.2.2 Javanese, Kaluli and Samoan
2.3. Parentese
2.3.1. Definition
2.3.2. Aspects of Parentese
2.3.3. Importance of Parentese
2.4. Baby Talk
2.4.1 Prosodic Modifications
2.4.2 Grammatical Modifications
2.4.3 Lexical Modifications
2.4.4 Phonological Modifications
2.4.5 Discourse Modifications
2.4.6 Other Forms of Baby Talk

3. Children as Speakers
3.1. Expansion
3.2 Imitation
3.3 Correction

4. Use of Grammatical Forms
4.1 Grammatical form as frequent but inappropriate for child use
4.1.1 Samoan
4.1.2 Kaluli
4.2 Grammatical form as infrequent but appropriate for child use
4.2.1 Kaluli
4.2.2 Samoan

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

7. Appendix
7.1 K’iche’ Mayan
7.2 Javanese
7.3 Kaluli
7.4 Samoan
7.5 Tamil
7.6 Inuit

1. Introduction

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.

2. Children as Addressees

2.1 Differences in Cultures

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.

2.1.1 USA, Canada and Europe

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:

Mother: “Are you hungry?”

Child says nothing.

Mother: “Yes! I am hungry! I am!”

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.

2.1.2 Other Societies

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.

2.2 Differences in Simplification

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.

2.2.1 USA, Europe, Tamil, Inuit

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).

2.2.2 Javanese, Kaluli and Samoan

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).

2.3. Parentese

2.3.1. Definition

Parentese, also known as ‘Motherese’, is a term which “is used to refer to the sort of speech that children receive when they are young” (Steinberg 1993: 22). It is one way parents, but also nurses, other adults and even children, talk to preverbal infants and children already speaking. Parentese differs from regular adult-to-adult speech because it is simplified and includes some aspects which do not occur in speech between adults. Some of these aspects are the following.

2.3.2. Aspects of Parentese

When talking to young children, adults and also older children “tend to modify their language” (Ochs & Schieffelin 1995: 76) by simplifying words, sentences and vocabulary, but also by talking about events that happen in the child’s immediate environment instead of talking about difficult topics (Steinberg 1993: 22). A mother would, for example, say to her child:

“Oh, look, Daddy is coming home!”

In this example the child sees his or her father coming in and can relate the mother’s utterance to what is happening in the near environment. The mother would, on the other hand, avoid utterances that are difficult or abstract, for instance:

“I might work on a research paper about sociolinguistics.”

It is assumed that adults using Parentese believe that “the child is ready to understand some of [their] speech and learn from it” (Sachs 1977: 51) and therefore they do not make utterances that are as difficult as the example below because the child would not understand the context. Besides avoiding sentences or topics that are difficult for children to understand, Parentese also includes some other aspects. Sentences that are spoken to children are shorter, without subordinate clauses or complicated syntax, whereas the vocabulary is simple as well. The words that are used relate to objects or events in the immediate environment and are neither ambiguous nor abstract (Ferguson 1977: 213). Also rhythm and intonation differ from adult-to-adult speech. When talking to children, adults “seem to use overall a higher pitch” (Sachs 1977: 52), they do more pauses, speak louder and slower. Also, the words are stressed and exaggerated and it is assumed that these exaggerations should mark the importance of specific words or utterances (Steinberg 1993: 22). As already mentioned before, “children, too, tend to use Parentese when talking with younger children” (Steinberg 1993: 22) but not when talking to adults. They seem to modify their language in a way that they think the addressee would be able to understand. Some other forms of Parentese are, for instance, “foreigner talk”, which means that people talk in the way they would talk to children when speaking to someone who does not understand one’s language, or “language of socialization” which is the kind of speech used when talking to older children aged four to eight (Ferguson 1977: 212).


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Social Aspects of Language Acquisition - Language Socialization and Grammatical Development
University of Duisburg-Essen
Language and the Mind
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Social, Aspects, Language, Acquisition, Language, Socialization, Grammatical, Development, Language, Mind
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Jessica Narloch (Author), 2006, Social Aspects of Language Acquisition - Language Socialization and Grammatical Development, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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