Ochs and Schieffelin (2001) wrote an ethnographic case study about language acquisition and socialization. Their article compares three different cultures in regard to child language acquisition and development. The authors discuss the vision caregivers have about children and how it impacts their expectations about language acquisition and child behavior. Three groups were observed – white western middle-class from Britain and the United States, Kaluli from Papua New Guinea, and Western Samoan.
The primary concern of caregivers is to assure children will be able to recognize social norms and express themselves appropriately. Therefore, their focus on language use and development is much fonder on the meaning of the message – social functions – than on its grammar. Language plays a fundamental role in socialization, so language acquisition and the development of social competence have a direct relationship. As a child grows, the society expects some behaviors and language usage. When the child meets those expectations, new possibilities of social interaction are opened and new expectations are presented in a continuum that provides overall development.
As it is largely known from literature and popular media, Anglo-American white middle class households usually consist of one single nuclear family and the mother will be the child’s primary caregiver. In modern times, of course, roles are changing and children may be taken care of by grandmothers, other family members, and/or nannies; but anyways there is usually a responsible adult close to the family taking the caregiver role. Mothers carry their babies facing them, address them in conversations, and treat them as social beings since birth. Children’s movements and vocalizations are given a meaning and are interpreted according to the circumstances. First sounds considered words are frequently “momma” or “dadda”; and from this time on caregivers assume that the child has started speaking.
White Anglo-American middle-class caregivers tend to provide children with a wide set of accommodations to “protect” them from harmful objects and/or situations. Toys, settings, devices, and clothes will differentiate environment for kids (when compared to adults) and will restrict their access to what is considered dangerous or age inappropriate. Accommodations and differentiation reflect values and tendencies of a society. Therefore, members of other groups may see those accommodations as a way to restrict children’s experiences and delay their development. For instance, while knives may be considered dangerous for children here, some other society may think that a child who is prevented access to knives will take longer to learn how to use them properly and safely; or a child who is prevented from crawling up and down stairs may take longer to learn how to climb them independently. The same way, when white middle-class caregivers level-down their vocabulary range and their linguistic constructions in the attempt to meet children’s ability to understand the conversation, a member form another society may see this as a restriction to proper linguistic acquisition and development. What I am trying to say, based on observations of different cultures and on Ochs and Schieffelin’s article is that what is considered right in one community may been seen as inappropriate in another. Is there a right or a wrong way?
When Ochs and Schieffelin observed the Kaluli, a people from Papua New Guinea, they noticed that babies are considered soft, helpless and with no understanding; therefore, they are not seen as social beings and are not able to initiate any interaction. Mothers are the primary caregivers, as well as in white Anglo-American middle-class; however they meet their children’s physical needs while doing other chores (for instance, they may nurse a baby while also cooking). Mothers don’t gaze into their children’s eyes, since this is a pattern in that society – no one gazes when talking to another person. Caregivers in that community rarely talk to the young children, but instead they talk for them using proper vocabulary and good manners (as if to model the proper way of talking). Older children may talk to the youngest, for what the mother will respond as if talking on behalf of the young child. Children’s vocalizations are not given any meaning and are not interpreted as tentative words.
The Kaluli child is always with the mother in every activity in and out of the house, and between 6-12 months of age the baby starts to be addressed in interactions and receive both negative and positive imperatives, greetings and rhetorical questions; however the adults’ utterances to the child won’t be longer than one line. While the child doesn’t start speaking, it is not seen as a partner in interactions. Anyways, this does not mean that their verbal stimuli will be poor. On the contrary, the child is always surrounded by adults who spend most of their time talking, as in that community talk is seen as a means of control and an indicator of social competence. Although the child may start speaking by any word, they are only recognized as speakers after they properly use the word equivalent to “mother” and “breast”. From this moment on, caregivers will instruct the child how to speak properly by using the imperative, “Say like that,…” Caregivers do not try to interpret unclear speech; they use “huh?” or “what?” to elicit clearer expression from the child. Children are expected to be assertive and imperative (different from the white Anglo-American culture described above).
The third society described by the authors is the Samoan, from Western Samoa. That is a highly stratified society, and individuals are respected due to their social status. This information about hierarchy, which also rank people in terms of generation and age, is important to explain the role of caregivers – young children are taken care of by older siblings, by the mother, or by the mother’s unmarried siblings; whoever the oldest individual present is (higher rank), she/he will be in charge and will give commands to the younger caregivers (lower rank). While the baby is sleeping, it stays on a pillow close to the mother but somewhat separated from other people. While the baby is awake, it is carried around by older children and taken to the mother for feeding and comfort. Infants are not treated as conversational partners, but are addressed with songs. When the children begin to crawl, they are expected to come to the caregivers for help. The moving child is always seen as mischievous and needs verbal discipline. The tone of voice of caregivers is assertive, loud and sharp, and not simplified. Caregivers talk at the children, but doesn’t engage in conversations with them. The same way, the child is expected to be assertive and the first word expected from him/her is “shit” – a curse word used in protest against another person. Defiant and angry language is deeply valued and considered desirable. With such behavior, the young child reaches the higher rank caregivers faster, and have that higher-rank caregiver will command the lower-rank caregiver to respond appropriately to the child. Since young age, children are expected to observe and learn the behavior of higher-rank individuals, so that they can also assume those positions in the society when they grow.
This article showcases how different cultures expect diverse behaviors from their children, and actually have diverse views about what children’s role in the society. Adults’ point of view will also influence the way they treat children, raise and educate them.
While observing classes in schools in two different countries, I have noticed that even within the same culture different teachers treat students differently. This article made me think that such differences are due to teachers’ various backgrounds. Some teachers look and sound very respectful to the students, are comfortable with rewarding them, and build a positive learning environment. However, this is not the most common kind of teacher.
Unfortunately, there is another type of teacher. There are teachers who are more authoritarian, gain students’ fear rather than their respect, and hardly ever acknowledge students’ good behavior and accomplishments; otherwise, they tend to control the class through the use of some sort of punishment – silent lunch, reduced recess, walking leaps, apology letters, parents contact, and so on. Some teachers talk about their students’ performance in front of them as if they were not there or as if they could not understand what is being said. Some teachers treat their students as if they were all stupid and helpless (which sounds disrespectful to me). Some teachers treat young learners as if they were all adults, not leveling their language or their demands. Some teachers don’t level the complexity of their vocabulary and instruction to reach younger kids and meet their needs, while some other teacher level it way to low assuming those kids are too immature to understand what is going on.
Fortunately, there are teachers who recognize they also are learners and are open to learn from their students’ experiences. Well… fortunately in my point of view, but who says this is the right thing to do? I could write forever about the different teachers I have seen, their behavior towards students and their expectations, but I assume you see the point.
All of those differences in teachers’ point of view affect what they expect from their students, which per se also affects the learners’ behavior and achievement in the classroom. Remember that behavior is a cultural aspect – what is acceptable there may not be acceptable here, and vice versa – still it doesn’t necessarily mean that one is totally right or wrong, or one is absolutely better than the other. The cases above illustrate that there is no formula of good behavior that works everywhere.
I am constantly observing myself and evaluating my own views. Who grants me that I am doing things the right way? I may be right at my own eyes, but the teacher next door may look at me and disapprove what I am doing. When working with students and teachers who come from the most diverse cultures it is necessary to have in mind that people are raised with different expectations, and children usually respond to those expectations in a more genuine way (while adults learn to disguise what may be seen as inappropriate).
What about you? How do you see children? What do you think is their role in the society? I your opinion, what are children able to do and learn? What are their overall needs? How have you affected children’s behavior and ultimately their lives?
Ochs, E. & Schieffelin, B. B. (2001). Language acquisition and socialization: Three developmental stories and their implications. In A. Duranti (Ed.) Linguistic Anthropology: A Reader (pp. 263-301). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Dos and Don’ts of Behaviour Management – 2nd Edition (2009), by Roger Dunn