how kids learn language and other culture questions

August 29, 2006

Editor’s Note: Good food for thought on language acquisition. Thanks for posting, Betsy! -Elisa

Anyone else catch this article on Slate about Charles Yang’s book “The Infinite Gift” on the acquisition of language?

I was fascinated for a bunch of reasons. For one thing, my “you’ve won the lottery – now what?” fantasy is to go back to school for a PhD in comparative linguistics – I took a class on English grammar from a Chomskian deep structure perspective when I was in school and was absolutely fascinated. So one thing that I found interesting in the review – and I read a bit about it in “the scientist in the crib” – (a great book, if you’ve not read it) – is the way we’re becoming more able to understand how children acquire language. Really fascinating.

But I was also interested to see the line Bazelon drops in about how we’re the only culture that really devotes energy to teaching language to our children.
And that it doesn’t seem to matter whether we do or not – by age 4 it’s all evened out.

Time to burn the alphabet flashcards?

Our son is just past two, and really exploding in language. Colors, numbers, letters – he’s beginning to identify them all over the place – and when he comes home from an outing with his dad uses one-word descriptions to tell me what they did. “Pool. DRAAAAIIINS [a fascination right now]. Hot shower. Tunnel. Popcorn.” which translates to “we went to the pool, I saw the drains, I had a hot shower, and went down the tunnel. We had popcorn on the way home.” It’s really fascinating to watch him begin to narrate what happened instead of what is right in front of him.

We have some letter-magnets (his favorite second birthday present – he slept with them that night) and he can identify probably 8 or 10 of them at any given time – though some days he ‘gets’ ones he doesn’t get other days. And crayon colors, etc. All of this we’ve ‘achieved’, I was thinking smugly recently, in a casual way, without flashcards or any of the other trappings of what I dismiss as hyperparenting.

And yet. Here’s this book that suggests none of it matters. It’s not achievement. He’d be doing this anyway, probably. Hmmm. My self-congratulations go right out the door.

The other little piece of that is that the notion that many other cultures only speak to toddlers to scold or correct them. If true, this pokes another hole in the “in the West, we’re too divorced from the natural way to raise children” argument I see trotted out so often in arguments about things like attachment parenting.

My knee-jerk reaction to that argument is always that parenting is a complex of decisions and attitudes and culturally bound realities. Sure, people co-sleep and are incredibly baby-friendly in India. Children also sometimes work in brick kilns there because they are desperately poor. Are their parents bad parents or good parents or just parents living in their reality? Can we make assumptions or decisions based on that one slice of fact?

Anyway the article was thought-provoking for me. Anyone else see it? Read the book?