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The Role of Adults in Language Development I

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Dr. Turben wants teachers to have acess to a program she gave to the ODE Annual Conference - How Children Tell Us How They Think Before They Have the Language to Epress Thought ad Feeling

Experience of conversation:

From the description of children as largely autonomous constructors of their own representation of language, it may appear that there is little that adults contribute to this process.  But this is very far from being so.  In order to proceed with the learning task, children require evidence about language in use.  They also need feedback on the effectiveness of their own linguistic behavior so that they can test the hypotheses that they are currently using in the construction of their language system.  Or, to put it more simply, in order to learn to talk, they need a considerable amount of experience of conversation.

Rate of progress vs. amount of conversation:

Sheer quantity is important.  In the Bristol Study we found a clear relationship between the children’s rate of progress in language learning and the amount of conversation that they experienced with their parents and other members of the family circle.  But this can’t be the whole story, for although the children who experienced the most conversation enjoyed almost ten times as much as the children who experienced the least, even these latter children continued to make progress, though at a much slower rate.

One-to-one situation is best:

What seems to be more important is that, to be most helpful, the child’s experience of conversation should be in a one-to-one situation in which the adult is talking about matters that are of interest and concern to the child, such as what he or she is doing, has done or plans to do, or about activities in which the child and adult engage together.  The reason for this is the fact that, when both child and adult are engaged in a shared activity, the chances are maximized that they will be attending to the same objects and events and interpreting the situation in similar ways.  This means that they will each have the best chance of correctly interpreting what the other says and so of being able collaboratively to build up a shared structure of meaning about the topic that is the focus of their inter- subjective attention.

Adults needs to compensate for child’s limitations:

Even between mature speakers of the same language, however, there is no guarantee that they will achieve mutual comprehension; hence the frequency of requests for repetition and clarification in most conversations.  When the conversation is between two participants who are as unequally matched as the adult and child, the chances of misunderstanding are even greater.  This therefore places a very great responsibility on the adult to compensate for the child’s limitations and to behave in ways that make it was easy as possible for the child to play his or her part effectively.  This means that, as speaker the adult must take into account the limited capabilities of the child – both the internal model of the world and the linguistic resources – and select his or her meanings and adjust the utterances in which they are encoded so that the child is able to make sense of them.  In fact adults, particularly parents, seem to be intuitively aware of the need to behave in this way; in the Bristol Study, little difference was fond between the children in the extent to which they received speech that was adjusted to their capabilities as listeners – at least as far as the average length and complexity of the adult utterances was concerned.

Parents modify speech when talking to children:

Similar findings have emerged from several other studies, carried out for the most part on European languages.  From them, it seems that, compared with their behavior when speaking to adults or other children, parents modify their speech when talking to young children in a number of ways:  keeping their utterances short and grammatically simple, using exaggerated intonation to hold the child’s attention and to emphasize the key words, limiting the topics talked about to what is familiar to the child, and frequently repeating and paraphrasing what they say.  In modifying their speech in this way, adults not only increase the chances of their children understanding what they say, but they also provide evidence that is particularly clear and easy for their children to use in their task of language construction. 

Making a rich interpretation:

Equally important, though, are the special efforts that adults must also make as listeners.  With their limited resources as speakers, children’s utterances are often difficult to interpret.  The adult therefore needs to make considerable use of contextual clues and knowledge about the individual child’s likes and interests in order to make a good guess as to what he or she intends.  Amongst researchers, this is known as “making a rich interpretation.”  And, again, we found that most parents did just that.

Ask Dr. Susan