Academic journal article Pre- and Peri-natal Psychology Journal

Parental Speech and Language Acquisition: An Anthropological Perspective

Academic journal article Pre- and Peri-natal Psychology Journal

Parental Speech and Language Acquisition: An Anthropological Perspective

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: The contribution of anthropology to the study of pre- and perinatal development will largely derive from the concept of culture, which is defined as the systems of meaning that members of society attribute to each other in their behavior. The concept is useful in the study of child language acquisition, since it necessitates a description of the ways that caretakers conceptualize their interactions with prelinguistic and language-acquiring children. Facilitative roles of parental speech are foregrounded, and meaning systems are made visible rather than overlooked or assumed. Illustrations are provided from English, Spanish, Luo, Samoan, and Quiche Mayan.

The editorial to this issue mentions the contributions that anthropology has made to pre-natal and peri-natal studies (see also Laughlin 1989). Within that framework, the present article is focused on what anthropology might contribute to the study of children's first language acquisition. Anthropology, by virtue of its concept of culture and its descriptive, observational research methods, is well placed to address specific issues in child language acquisition research.

One major issue in child language research has been the role of speech addressed to young children in aiding or promoting language acquisition. The argument will be presented below that the issue has been clouded by lack of information about what parents, or their socialization surrogates, actually do when they direct speech to infants or young children. The absence of a strong data base pertaining to the contextual support and the nature of parent-child interaction severely limits our ability to understand how linguistic features of interaction may promote child language acquisition.



The concept of culture has been central to anthropological inquiry since the nineteenth century, when it was developed more or less concurrently with academic anthropology. The individual largely responsible for the emergence of both the concept and the discipline was Edward B. Tylor, who provided a definition of culture that has informed anthropology for more than a century: "Culture ... is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, arts, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society" (Tylor, 1871, p. 1).

Tylor's seminal definition of culture has been the starting point for many of the reconceptualizations the concept has undergone in the anthropological community, including the way that culture tends to be viewed in contemporary anthropology. Among the features proposed by Tylor were: (1) culture consists of knowledge; (2) culture is acquired; and (3) acquisition occurs within a societal framework. The same features can be seen in the definition that prevails in anthropology today, supplied by Ward Goodenough: "A society's culture consists of whatever it is that one has to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members, and do so in any role that they accept for any one of themselves (Goodenough, 1957, p. 167). In other words, culture is an information system that allows members of a society to interpret each other's behavior in meaningful ways. Behavior is viewed in broad terms. Even behavior that has clear biological bases, such as emotions, fall within the scope of culture, since societies have culturally defined frameworks within which they interpret emotionally-derived behavior as meaningful (see Lutz, 1988).

Methodological concerns

In research that involves anthropology and other disciplines, two points about the importance of the culture concept should be highlighted. One is that a focus on culture requires a methodological framework in which the notion or concept of an "individual" in contextualized. The focus is on a framework within which individuals can relate to each other. Moreover, the "relation" is in terms of meaning, which is shared and which is a constitutive part of any event in which behavior occurs. …

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