Perspective Taking in Language Learning and Teaching

By Hall, Allison H. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Perspective Taking in Language Learning and Teaching


Hall, Allison H., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Introduction

Language is a means by which different minds communicate ideas to one another. It is also a means our minds use to understand ourselves, other people, the world around us, and the relationships among them. In language acquisition, we are basically developing a code that we will use to understand, formulate and communicate ideas. The acquisition of a child's native language is necessary for normal social functioning and is, for the most part, inevitable. The acquisition of a second language, however, may be neither necessary nor inevitable. Those for whom a second language may be necessary or highly desired for normal social functioning may benefit from practicing the strategies and skills developed by children learning their native language. One of these skills that children develop that coincides with the development of their language skills is the skill of perspective taking. How exactly these two skills relate is currently a matter of debate among researchers. However, the fact that there is a strong relationship between language acquisition and perspective taking is not in doubt. Examining this research and applying the knowledge gained to second language learning and teaching may help learners to gain a deeper linguistic and cultural understanding that will lead to higher social functioning skills in the target language.

Definitions

Since social functioning is considered a primary goal of language learning, we need to establish exactly what social functioning comprises. Two primary aspects of social functioning are the ability to perceive what others say and do accurately and the ability to respond appropriately. In order to function in any society, we need both to understand the signals that the members of that society are sending and to send appropriate signals back in order to convey our messages in an understandable and meaningful way. With these abilities, an individual could be considered as having acquired social functioning skills in a particular society. The signals that are sent back and forth between members of a society are in large part conveyed verbally. This is not to minimize the often dominant role of non-verbal communication, but our primary focus here is the linguistic code.

A second concept requiring definition is perspective taking. Perspective taking is the ability to see things from a point of view other than one's own. In describing perspective taking, Moskowitz says: "We must be able to stand in the shoes of others, see the world through their eyes, empathize with what they are feeling, and attempt to think and react to the world in the same way that they think and react to the world." (1) Perspective taking is often referred to as or considered a part of the "theory of mind," a concept introduced in 1978 by researchers Premack and Woodruff who tested chimpanzees to see if they understood that others had a different mind and point of view. (2) Perspective taking, or theory of mind, is considered an important step in the cognitive development of children.

Research on Perspective Taking

The research on perspective taking covers a wide range of topics. In this brief overview of the research, we will look at the relation of perspective taking to social skills, empathy, ethics, conflict management, and ethnicity, culture and stereotypes.

Researchers have found a great deal of evidence supporting the benefits of developing perspective-taking skills and using them in our social interactions. Inherent in perspective taking are many significant interpersonal values, including respect for different realities, appreciation for individual differences, objectivity, flexibility, tolerance of ambiguity, and nonjudgmental attitudes. (3) Characteristics commonly associated with perspective taking are "patience, reasonableness and sensitivity," which lead to more accuracy in judging others. (4) These qualities can be a great benefit in any social situation. …

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