Language development in children

All the other ways of knowing are controlled by language. The appropriate use of language is central to virtually all aspects of learning and social development. Successful and appropriate language communication is also closely linked to the individual’s place in society, while the inability to communicate clearly hampers and may virtually eliminate a person’s ability to cope with even the simplest educational and social situations.

The manner in which children learn to understand and successfully communicate through language is among the most important questions studied by psychologists. The appropriate use of language is central to virtually all aspects of learning and social development. Successful and appropriate language communication is also closely linked to the individual’s place in society, while the inability to communicate clearly hampers and may virtually eliminate a person’s ability to cope with even the simplest educational and social situations.

Traditionally, psychological accounts of language development   have been developed by theorists who have included language learning in their discussions of a general acquisition process (e.g. Miller and Dollard, 1941; Skinner, 1957). Skinner for example, believes that language is learned in large measure by waiting for children to emit approximations of the forms of speech which are ultimately desired and then by gradual shaping   (by parents or other socializing agents) until the correct sounds and sentence forms can be reproduced in appropriate situations with a high degree of fidelity.           In contrast, some psycholinguists (e.g. Chomsky, 1959; Fodor, 1966) have   cogently argued that operant learning theory cannot adequately account for complex verbal behavior. Chomsky (1959) offers the following pregnant critique of a “conditioning” viewpoint:

…it seems quite beyond questions that children acquire a good deal of their verbal and non-verbal behavior by casual observation and imitation of adults and other children. It is simply not true that children can learn language only through “meticulous care” on the part of adults who shape their verbal repertoire through careful differential reinforcement, though it may be that such care is often the custom in academic families.

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It is a common observation that a young child of immigrant parents may learn a second language in the streets, from other children, with amazing rapidity, and that his speech   may be completely fluent and correct to the last allophone… A child may pick up a large part of his vocabulary and “feel” for sentence structure from television, from reading, from listening to adults, etc. Even a very young child who has not yet acquired a minimal repertoire from which to form new utterances may imitate a word quite well on an early try, with no attempt on the part of his parents to teach it to him (p. 42).

Numerous experiments have now disclosed that principles for generating novel responses can be acquired through the observation of others (for example, Bandura & McDonald, 1963; Bandura & Mischel, 1965). If principles of language usage, rather than mere words can be shown to be acquired through observational learning, then this would provide at least a partial account of the process of language acquisition.

The classic experiment in this area was conducted by Bandura and Harris (1966). They were interested whether second-grade children could make up sentences that included prepositional phrases and the passive voice. The children were tested first during a base rate period and then again after some form of intervening training.

The results demonstrated that the children showed a greater increment in the production of the relevant construction in their sentences (than did the control group) if they were exposed to a combination of (1) an adult model’s production of sentence3s with and without the relevant construction (2) reward to both the model and the observer for sentences containing the relevant construction and (3) attention-focusing instructions.

This study clearly suggested that children’s language productions might be modified through modeling in conjunction with other procedures. It is likely, however, that the children in Bandura and Harris experiment had been exposed to prepositional phrases and the passive voice many times in their lives prior to entering the experimental situation. Therefore, the question still remained as to whether children could actually acquire new or novel language rules as a function of observation.

Indeed, language is important and in fact, traditionally, psychological accounts of language development have been developed by theorists who have included language learning in their discussions of a general acquisition process (Miller & Dollard, 1941; Skinner, 1957). Skinner, for example, believes that language is learned, in large measure by waiting for children to emit approximations of the forms of speech which are ultimately desired and then by gradual shaping (by parents or other socializing agents) until the correct sounds and sentence forms can be reproduced in appropriate situations with a high degree of fidelity.

This is a fair representation of the interrelationship between perception, emotion, reason and language, for numerous experiments have now disclosed that principles for generating novel responses can be acquired through the observation of others (Bandura & McDonald, 1963) If principles of language usage, rather than mere words, can be shown to be acquired through observational learning, then this would provide at least a partial account of the process of language acquisition.

In the area of linguistic diversity, researches reveal that in spite of enormous impact that language has on children’s schooling, lack of English skills alone cannot explain the poor academic achievement of students. It is tempting to fall back on this explanation and thus count on simple solutions to solve the problem. Cuban students, for example, have the highest educational level of all Latinos, yet they are the most likely to speak Spanish at home. (Valdivieso & Davis, 1988).

However, the fact that students speak Spanish is treated by many teachers as a problem. There is also evidence that teachers interact more negatively with students who do not speak English than with those who do. (U.S. General Accounting Office, Bilingual Education: A New Look at the Research Evidence, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, March 1987). Thus, this is where the emotion and perception side come in the picture. Because if this is the case, then the language dominance of students is not the real issue; rather, the way in which teachers and schools view their language may be even more crucial to student achievement in acquiring knowledge.

How language and language use are perceived by the schools and whether modifications in the curriculum and imparting of knowledge are made as a result are important factors to keep in mind. The fact that English speakers rarely have the opportunity to enter bilingual education programs reinforces status of these programs. This is where the methodology of knowledge is more important than the knowledge itself.

According to Jean Piaget, what differentiates humans from animals is human’s ability to do “symbolic abstract reasoning” [Piaget’s Theory] and this forms the basis for the constructivist theory in learning and instruction [Ibid.]. During his experiments, he observed that children think differently from adult and answer questions differently, but it does not mean that children are dumb [Ibid.].

Piaget’s theory had two major aspects: the process and stages of cognitive development [Ibid.]. The process of learning and acquiring intelligence of children is influenced by ‘schemas,’ which is actually the child’s representation to the world. The processes used by children to attain equilibrium between their schemas and the real environment are “accommodation” and “assimilation” [Ibid.]. It is assimilation when a child tries to fit cubes into square holes during playtime. It is accommodation when a child tries to push harder a heavier play cart with classmate- passengers than a cart with no one riding.

As a child grows, schemas become more complex [Ibid.]. The stages in cognitive development of a child are divided into three: sensorimotor [infancy], pre-operational stage (toddler and early childhood), and concrete operational stage (elementary and early adolescence). During infancy, a child only recognizes an object when he or she sees it [Giants]. During toddler hood and early child hood, a child knows the direction of the right and left of an object, but the child cannot correctly think relative to that object [Ibid.].

At the concrete operational stage, a child becomes more logical in their understanding of the world. It is important that teachers of pre-school and primary schools learn to challenge abilities of children [Piaget’s Theory]. “Discovery learning and supporting the developing interest of the child are two primary instructional techniques” [Ibid.] to help children understand the world more.

“Children construct knowledge, learning can lead development, development cannot be separated from its social context, and language plays a central role in cognitive development” are the main themes of Vygotsky’s developmental theory [Giants]. Children construct knowledge in a way that Piaget had described it [Bodrova 2005]. A child’s learning can be measured in a level of independent performance and level of assisted performance [Ibid]. The area between these measures will result to the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) which increases as learning occurs [Ibid].

Both content and processes of thought is determined by the culture [Ibid.]. Higher functions in man such as focused attention, deliberate memory and symbolic thought are passed down thru teaching [Ibid.]. “Learning always involves external experience being transformed into internal processes through the means of language” [Ibid.]. Vygotsky’s principle taught that teachers should know the specific learning needs of a child and determine what most appropriate intervention could be done.

The ZPD would eventually be filled-up if the learning needs were met thru proper teaching practice. One good practice was to devise an assessment questionnaire that would equally gauge independent performance and assisted performance, and from there, the ZPD can be quantitatively determined. By identifying the gap qualitatively, the learning needs of a child would be revealed.   Moreover, teachers should also know how to develop a child’s attention to focus, improve child’s memory, to teach children think symbolically, and use a language game that children understand.

Meanwhile, one’s cultural and social upbringing affects the way a person views this. There are no assumptions or deducing involved here. One can verify the information by just looking again at the dizzying array of program alternatives in bilingual education, each claiming to be more successful than the others. In general, most research has found that bilingual programs of all kinds are effective not only in teaching students content area knowledge in their native language but also in teaching them English. This has been proven time and again to be the case in research analyses and specific program reviews (Hakuta, 1990).

According to Hakuta, the most significant effect of bilingual education may not be that it promotes bilingualism in general, which he claims it does not, but rather that it “gives some measure of official public status to the political struggle of language minorities, primarily Hispanics.” He suggests that raising the status of these children’s native languages contributes to their opportunities for friendships with English-speaking children.

Similarly, Erik Erikson as psychoanalyst taught that any person, child or adult faces specific life crisis that they have to resolve in order to perform their tasks (Atkinson 1993). During early childhood or preschool, a child develops an ability to initiate activities (Ibid. 118); teachers have to learn how to encourage or discourage them in order that the child would not feel inadequate.

During middle child hood or elementary, children learns various skills such as reading and writing, but they have to interact socially with others in order to feel successful or competent, otherwise they would feel inferior. During this time, a teacher should constantly but reasonably praise a child for a job well done. The LOGO programming used with young children was believed to be supported by Erikson’s theory on the psychosocial stages (Gillespie and Beisser, 2001, p. 230).

LOGO is a computer programming language developed by Dr. Seymour Papert in 1980s that is loaded with MicroWorlds software. With the MicroWorlds, a child creates his own animated graphics thru self-directed activity and independently explores cause and effect. Giving children ample time to spend with LOGO programming,  building and constructing encourages children to work without making them feel guilty which makes smooth the transition of a child in his guilty-prone period  (Ibid. p. 234). The same activities enable a child also to acquire mastery of the game in order to feel competent.

REFERENCES

Atkinson, R.L., Richard C. Atkinson, Edward E. Smith and Daryl J. Bem (1993).

Introduction to Psychology 11th ed.. United States: Harcourt Brace College

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Bandura, A. & McDonald F.J. (1963). The influence of social reinforcement and the behavior of models in shaping children’s moral judgments. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology.  67, 274-281.

Bodrova, Elena (2005). Vygotsky’s Developmental Theory: An Introduction. In Davidson

Films Homepage. Retrieved Oct. 29, 2006, from

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Chomsky, N. Review of B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior (1959).Language, 35, 26-58.

Gillespie, C., Beisser, W. (2001). Developmentally Appropriate

LOGO Computer Programming with Young Children. Retrieved Oct. 29, 2006,

http://www.aace.org/dl/files/ITCE/ITCE2001-229.pdf

Hakuta, K. (1990). Bilingualism and Bilingual Education: A Research Perspective, no. 1

Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education, Spring.

Miller, N.E. & Dollard, J. Social learning and imitation. New Haven: Yale University

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Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development. In Educational Psychology Interactive

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http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/cogsys/piaget.html.

Skinner, B. F. Verbal behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1957.

U.S. General Accounting Office (1987).  Bilingual Education: A New Look at the Research

Evidence, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Valdivieso, R. and Davis, C. (1988). U.S. Hispanics: Challenging Issues for the 1990s

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