Outline some of the functions of language and comment on how language can be said to be a social instrument
Throughout history, language “its origins, diversity, and dynamic nature” has fascinated scholars. Indeed, their fascination has even been preserved”just as most historical records have been”thanks to language itself. Undoubtedly, in language humans have their ultimate means of communication (Whitehead 1996).
From the moment they are born, babies seem to want to communicate. This communication involves facial expressions, gestures and body language and verbal and sign language. Language of all kinds uses an agreed code which develops according to the cultures in which they arise (Pinker 1994). The rhythms, tone and melody of language are of great importance as language develops. The gestures and movements of the face and hands are also extremely important and are all part of the conventional symbols of that particular culture (Whitting 1992).
The child learns to speak slowly through observation. Somebody makes a special sound when something comes into sight or makes this noise, or when the baby sees it and looks at it. Then he will make the same noise himself, and the sound has been found to have an effect.
The infant gradually learns that particular sounds are intimately connected with certain objects, and that making that sound seems to control it in some way (Barnes 1995). He finds assistance in learning to talk through the observation made by his other senses and further help is derived from the people around him. Through language he is being accepted into society very gradually. It is by communicating his own thoughts, or acknowledging those of others, that he is regarded as making a contribution and of being on equal footing with those around him. There is much debate whether we are born with the skills and abilities necessary for speech or whether we develop them because of our environment.
This is often referred to as the nature versus nurture debate (Barnes 1998). There are several theories of how babies and children acquire language.
Some are based on the idea that learning a language is an instinct and others that children learn to communicate because they are exposed to language as part of a process of socialisation (Pinkers 1994). There is no doubt that children are born with a predisposition to learn, talk and listen.
Children learn to talk partly because they are born genetically equipped to do so, and partly through the people they meet and communicate and socialise with. So what exactly are some of the functions of language for the child? The positive relationships and communications between people who respect each other is one of the most important factors in language development and in the development of the child’s thinking. To be part of a culture is a need human beings are born with (Barnes 1998).
Children therefore need to learn a language in order to understand themselves and those around them. It is through language that they communicate with others and share their experiences. It is also through language that they are able to represent and express new ideas as well as complex matters.
Children are in difficulty when they are not able to put their feelings into words or express then in any way (Whitting 1992). This has a damaging impact of the development of their self-esteem. Talking about feelings is just as important as talking about idea, and children who cannot express their feelings often have tantrums or show other kinds of challenging behaviour.
Language is also important for a child from the point of view of talking to oneself. Children find it helpful to think through different ideas and they like to talk about their feelings. They also need to talk through their frustrations when things are not going according to plan. They need to organise their thoughts and plan what they are going to do. Just as many adults talk to themselves when they think things over, so too do children.
When we look at language development, we can see that a young child thinks from their own point of view.
Some psychologists have suggested that thinking is not possible without language, and language and thought are often considered to be particularly closely linked (Lee et al 1995). Language development is part of symbolic behaviour and is often called the period of symbolic development. Language development is deeply linked with the processes of representation and communication which means it makes is easier to represent (keep hold of experiences) and to communicate (to share these experiences with others).
Richard Dawkins, the biologist, refers to language as part of the social evolution of human beings.
The desire to communicate starts at birth. Babies learn quickly how to get their needs met by cooing, crying and making eye contact with their primary carers. Language and the ability to communicate can radically affect nearly all areas of a child’s overall development.
Language is considered to be the main tool by which a child is able to develop their thought processes. Words are often the tool by which they store information. Being able to use language allows children to express themselves and communicate in a variety of ways and because of this, there is a strong link between children’s social skills and their language skills. The need for language and communication skills in everyday life means that in practice, where children have some communication difficulty, their social development may be affected (Walley 1994). So how do infants accomplish the feat of learning to speak, which is so important for the rest of their cognitive development? Primarily through verbal interactions with the parents.
Infants especially respond to human stimuli. A baby imitates its mother’s voice although, interestingly, babies do not imitate all sounds. For example, the baby does not insert the cradle squeaks that have occurred simultaneously with the mother’s speech.
Parents of varied cultural backgrounds speak to their babies using the same rhythmic speaking style that some call Parentese. As the parent speaks in a loving way, the heart rate of the infant increases (Bartholomew et al 1999). This is believed to assist in hastening the connection between words and the objects they denote. Without saying a word, the infant is calling out: Talk to me! It is important to understand that although most children vary in their rate of development, there seems to be a pattern to the way children learn language and communication skills from their carers. When we study human language we are approaching what some might call the ‘human essence,’ the distinctive qualities of mind that are, so far as we know, unique to man (Holt 1991).
Children as young as 3 years of age already possess a remarkable knowledge of language structure and syntax which is so complex and precise that it must challenge any known learning theory to account for its acquisition. (Oates 1995) Smiling, laughing and crying are universal communicative signals found in all cultures. A baby will use cries to signal he is hungry, lonely or distressed.
At an early age, from 3 months onwards, the infant can recognise a carer’s voice and, as he gets older, he is more inclined to cry out for attention. In this manner, he is using his limited language ability to gain instant gratification from his carer. As he reaches a year old, he is able to understand a few simple words and enjoys social interaction with his careers. By two years, new words are learnt quickly and he begins to use questions and explore his surroundings with great keenness (Arnold 1999).
Throughout each stage of the child’s life, language is used as a stepping stone which enable him to find out more about himself and his surroundings. Language needs to accompany actions. When an adult lifts a baby and says ‘Up we go’, it is important that the adult then describes what is happening (Pinkers 1994).
Actions help children understand what is being said to them. Language is important for abstract thinking and children learn to think through a variety of different ways of symbolically representing their ideas, experiences, feelings and relationships. When we think about cognition, we are referring to the child thinking and having ideas and concepts. With metacognition, children begin to think about their own thinking. They reflect on their own ideas and begin to understand when they have made mistakes.
The next step in language is metalinguistics when the child begins to think about what they say. Eventually they are able to put their ideas into words and this helps them to put their emotions into words (Oates 1995).
At each stage, the child is using different functions of language: as a means of action; putting thoughts into words; expressing feelings; communicating with others; understanding his own feelings. The first few years of a child’s life are essentially years of exploration and adventure, sometimes pleasant, sometimes quite the reverse. Some of the functions for language for the child is that of answering their questions.
It is unfortunately not realised by many grown people that children are living mentally in a world quite different from their parent and other adult people. Having decided then that the child’s questioning faculty must not be suppressed, the questions is, how best to deal with his questions. Children demand to ask countless questions and sometimes unanswerable things. Language is a means of teaching good manners.
Really good manners are the expression of the child’s character and show that he is thinking of other people’s happiness and comfort. This is a function that stems from the basic linguistic skills which were the basis for the new born child. Independence is another function of language.
Now a ‘mother fixation’ begins fist of all by a child’s clinging far too much to his mother. Relying on her for everything, having no will of his own becoming fiendishly jealous of everyone who becomes between him and his beloved parent. There are numerous strategies in place to overcome such independences, Another function of language is the feeling of jealousy and anxiety about the arrival if the next baby. This can be helped by allowing children to take out their aggressive feeling on a soft toy. This channels the aggression and gives the child permission to express their feelings.
Parents are inundated with tips when a new baby comes along whilst baby number one is still very young. Children listen with interest when others speak, and do not dominate conversations. People will overlook a mispronounced word or a slip in grammar, but they will not warm to someone who wants to talk but not listen.
It is important to make time to talk about the new baby just as much as the established baby. Infants can pick up in insincere speech on the part of their parents and they know instinctively if they are being pushed out. There are many books on the market which try to help parents identify and develop the various functions of language for their infants. It is important to take an interest in life and the things around you and read widely but judiciously (Bartholomew et al 1999).
The child will learn from you and language will gain an important part of their life too. When discussing what you learn, temper your conversation with modesty and humility. Enlarge your vocabulary”but with practical words, not showy terms that draw attention to the speaker.
Speak clearly, and pronounce words correctly. But avoid sounding overly precise or affected. When we speak articulately and refrain from slurring words or clipping off word endings, we dignify our speech and do a kindness to our children who are listening intently Babies’ brains are sponges soaking up their surroundings. In two years their processors learn a complex language just by hearing it. If the child hears two, he learns both.
Not only language but also musical and artistic abilities, muscular coordination, moral values and conscience, faith and love and the urge to worship”all spring from capacities and potentials pre-programmed into baby brains. They only await input from the environment for their development.
Also, there is a correct timetable for this input to come for the best results, and that advantageous time is during the formative years. Very early on the child is aware of the pleasure he derives from feeling his own breath being slowly inspired and expired.
The passage of air over the lips, the slight tickling sensation apparent as they are first approximated and then separated, the vibrations in oral and naval cavities, will give the child untold delight. The pleasure lies in the conscious control of his own activity – his own power over language (Lee et al 1995). It is absurd to imply that language is not a social instrument when quite clearly the pleasure lies in the conscious control of his own activity, in the child’s possessions and demonstration of power.
The child finds assistance in learning to talk though the observation made by his other senses and through linking together these special sounds with the objects that seem to have made them. Not only will the child use the simplest of gestures, grimaces, cries, or other sounds when words fail to express ideas and needs, but adults will frequently make use of the same method, when ordinary words do not convey the right meaning to a child (Minnet 1994). Most child developmentalists state that the discoveries of philology show that during the development of speech in the individual child, the same stages are followed as in the course of cultural progress in any race (Whitting 1992).
The lowest stage of all in the use of sounds is that of the simple cry, which primarily is a reflex action, denoting discomfort and acting as an emotional discharge. When the child discovers that constant repetition of a cry produces certain results, it can be deduced that mental processes connected with it are possible. The cry language therefore expresses the needs of the very young baby and serves the purpose of summoning assistance (Oates 1995).
The child proceeds from a simple cry to gestures and grimaces, which are practically the same except a different part of the body is used as the agent in each. The baby adopts his own version of Sign Language and can become surprised and distressed should someone be left in charge who does not understand his own particular Sign Language, and consequently fails to give the right response.
Before long, the infant realises he can make sounds with his mouth and then discovers the use of words (Arnold 1999). It is extremely difficult to assign any precise age to the acquisition of speech, since children vary so widely in the speed at which they pass from one stage to another. One child will begin to say a few words with certainty at nine months, while another will be a year old before they first attempt to repeat any word.
Children have an intuitive understanding of the meaning of words in any language, whether they are familiar with it or not. It seems likely that the basis of this understanding is their instinctive power of interpretation of gesture and facial expression which will accompany the spoken words (Arnold 1999) The child knows that the gesture and facial expression, the accompanying touch are all indicative of the underlying intention and are practically the same in all countries. However, in other cultures, gesture and facial expression are used far more than in our own. The child is extremely accurate in associating ideas and is very particular to keep all the links already forged quite separate from one another (Drummond 1993).
The child originally hears all sounds as patterns and people who talk with a slightly different accent or intonation from that which the child is familiar will be entirely unintelligible, as though they were talking in a foreign language Every language is a unique and uniquely important way to make sense of the world. Language is a palette of sounds, a dictionary of words made up of those sounds, and a grammar of rules for combining the words meaningfully. Every child that learns to speak practices sounds, builds up a dictionary and works out a set of rules.
Every child does this all largely unconsciously, with incomplete help and unreliable guidance from parents and friends and teachers who, themselves are only half conscious of the rules. And so the numerous functions of language enable young people to be heard, to cry out in pain, to acknowledge agreement, to express hunger, thirst, anger, pain, sadness, bewilderment, contentment, joy and love. It is through such a miraculous invention that language can be said, not just to be a social instrument, but the main social instrument.
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