Encountering the World: Toward An Ecological Psychology

By Edward S. Reed | Go to book overview

11
Entering the Linguistic Environment

The Two Phases of Language Development

All normal humans beings learn to understand and to use language. However, each individual primarily learns the language of his or her local environment, and therefore thousands of different languages (and many more distinctive dialects) have evolved. To become a person, one has to enter the world of language, but in becoming a proper person, one enters a specific speech community.

In this chapter I argue that human children do not, strictly speaking, learn something called language, but instead develop a repertoire of skills--cognitive and social as well as communicative--that enable them to become competent (junior) partners in their community. Given the social arrangements of modern humans, this community tends to exist in two distinct spheres and, therefore, language acquisition tends to proceed in two distinct phases.

The infant's social world is strongly demarcated between the family (meaning the small group of immediate caregivers) and the larger community, whatever that may be. It is a nearly universal fact of human upbringing that the child's encounters with the family are far more intense than encounters with others until at least 18 months. Sometime in the second or third year of life most children in most cultures begin to experience systematic, frequent, and meaningful encounters with people and social arrangements beyond the family.

The first phase of language development is thus largely within the confines of the family, and therefore tends to be idiosyncratic with respect to established patterns of the language community as a whole. I call this phase of language use indicational language because the functional communication skills manifest at this time of life revolve around the child's ability to select or indicate a topic (object, place, event, person) of interest to be shared with the interlocutor. Indicational language is marked by idiosyncrasies of communicative structure and content, as we shall see. However, as children are forced to adapt their language to an ever-larger circle of acquaintance, much of this idiosyncrasy becomes increasingly dysfunctional, and a remarkable reorganization of communicative structure begins to occur. In order to produce speech acts that function smoothly and are accepted as genuine by most members of the larger language community, children must discover how to control the key patterns deployed by that community: morphological, phonological, and syntactic transformations and invariants. I argue that the child's discovery of these complex patterns emerge within

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