The Functions of Language for Children
Throughout history, language-its origins, diversity, and dynamic nature-has fascinated scholars. Indeed, their fascination has even been preserved-just as most historical records have been-thanks to language itself. Undoubtedly, in language humans have their ultimate means of communication (Whitehead 1996). From the moment they are born, babies seem to want to communicate. This communication involves facial expressions, gestures and body language and verbal and sign language. Language of all kinds uses an agreed code which develops according to the cultures in which they arise (Pinker 1994). The rhythms, tone and melody of language are of great importance as language develops. The gestures and movements of the face and hands are also extremely important and are all part of the conventional symbols of that particular culture (Whitting 1992).
The child learns to speak slowly through observation. Somebody makes a special sound when something comes into sight or makes this noise, or when the baby sees it and looks at it. Then he will make the same noise himself, and the sound has been found to have an effect. The infant gradually learns that particular sounds are intimately connected with certain objects, and that making that sound seems to control it in some way (Barnes 1995). He finds assistance in learning to talk through the observation made by his other senses and further help is derived from the people around him. Through language he is being accepted into society very gradually. It is by communicating his own thoughts, or acknowledging those of others, that he is regarded as making a contribution and of being on equal footing with those around him.
There is much debate whether we are born with the skills and abilities necessary for speech or whether we develop them because of our environment. This is often referred to as the nature versus nurture debate (Barnes 1998). There are several theories of how babies and children acquire language. Some are based on the idea that learning a language is an instinct and others that children learn to communicate because they are exposed to language as part of a process of socialisation (Pinkers 1994). There is no doubt that children are born with a predisposition to learn, talk and listen. Children learn to talk partly because they are born genetically equipped to do so, and partly through the people they meet and communicate and socialise with. So what exactly are some of the functions of language for the child?
The positive relationships and communications between people who respect each other is one of the most important factors in language development and in the development of the child’s thinking. To be part of a culture is a need human beings are born with (Barnes 1998). Children therefore need to learn a language in order to understand themselves and those around them. It is through language that they communicate with others and share their experiences. It is also through language that they are able to represent and express new ideas as well as complex matters. Children are in difficulty when they are not able to put their feelings into words or express then in any way (Whitting 1992). This has a damaging impact of the development of their self-esteem. Talking about feelings is just as important as talking about idea, and children who cannot express their feelings often have tantrums or show other kinds of challenging behaviour.
Language is also important for a child from the point of view of talking to oneself. Children find it helpful to think through different ideas and they like to talk about their feelings. They also need to talk through their frustrations when things are not going according to plan. They need to organise their thoughts and plan what they are going to do. Just as many adults talk to themselves when they think things over, so too do children. When we look at language development, we can see that a young child thinks from their own point of view. Some psychologists have suggested that thinking is not possible without language, and language and thought are often considered to be particularly closely linked (Lee et al 1995).
Language development is part of symbolic behaviour and is often called the period of symbolic development. Language development is deeply linked with the processes of representation and communication which means it makes is easier to represent (keep hold of experiences) and to communicate (to share these experiences with others). Richard Dawkins, the biologist, refers to language as part of the social evolution of human beings. The desire to communicate starts at birth. Babies learn quickly how to get their needs met by cooing, crying and making eye contact with their primary carers. Language and the ability to communicate can radically affect nearly all areas of a child’s overall development. Language is considered to be the main tool by which a child is able to develop their thought processes. Words are often the tool by which they store information. Being able to use language allows children to express themselves and communicate in a variety of ways and because of this, there is a strong link between children’s social skills and their language skills. The need for language and communication skills in everyday life means that in practice, where children have some communication difficulty, their social development may be affected (Walley 1994).
So how do infants accomplish the feat of learning to speak, which is so important for the rest of their cognitive development? Primarily through verbal interactions with the parents. Infants especially respond to human stimuli. A baby imitates its mother’s voice although, interestingly, babies do not imitate all sounds. For example, the baby does not insert the cradle squeaks that have occurred simultaneously with the mother’s speech. Parents of varied cultural backgrounds speak to their babies using the same rhythmic speaking style that some call “Parentese.” As the parent speaks in a loving way, the heart rate of the infant increases (Bartholomew et al 1999). This is believed to assist in hastening the connection between words and the objects they denote. Without saying a word, the infant is calling out: “Talk to me!” It is important to understand that although most children vary in their rate of development, there seems to be a pattern to the way children learn language and communication skills from their carers.
When we study human language we are approaching what some might call the ‘human essence,’ the distinctive qualities of mind that are, so far as we know, unique to man (Holt 1991). Children as young as 3 years of age already possess a remarkable knowledge of language structure and syntax which is so complex and precise that it must challenge any known learning theory to account for its acquisition. (Oates 1995)