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What do we mean by language?

Most of us are so used to defining language as a means of communication that we often forget its usefulness as a means to think, feel, and react to things. This wider use of language is extremely important for people who want to work with young children, for in childhood, language plays a formative role in the development of the child's personality and abilities. It acts as a subtle, yet strong force, shaping the child's perception of the world, interests, capabilities and even values and attitudes.

Every child in the world -- whatever his or her mother tongue -- uses language to fulfil certain immediate purposes. One major purpose is to make sense of the world, and in fulfilling this purpose language acts as a marvellous tool. Unless we are able to take the child's point of view and understand the functions that language plays in the child's life, we cannot properly determine our role as teachers, caretakers, or parents.

Children's use of language is closely related to the things they do with their hands and bodies and the objects they come in contact with. Words and actions go together in childhood. Actions and experiences create the need for words and words provide access to an experience after it is over. With the help of words, children enrich their relationship with the objects they come in touch with. On the other hand, words without action or contact with objects remain empty and lifeless for the child. Words like 'cat', 'run', 'fall', 'blue', 'river' and 'rough' mean very little to the child unless these words have first been used in a context where the child was actively involved with the object or in an act. Only after such involvement do these words become associated with an image, and become available for meaningful use in future.

This relationship between words and the child's physical experiences poses a unique responsibility on adults, especially teachers. As a teacher you may expect that parents have already provided a wide range of experiences to the children who are now under your care. This may not be true for the great majority of parents. Many parents either do not feel confident enough to allow their children to come in contact with a wide range of objects in early childhood or they do not have the time to accommodate the much slower pace at which children see and do things. Often, adults find it a nuisance if the child stands at the tap with her fingers in the stream of water for half an hour, or if she puts all the utensils on the floor, or if she wants to open and close an umbrella countless times. Sometimes, in order to avoid any possibility of damage to objects or harm to the child, adults prohibit the child from all but a narrow range of experiences.

Whatever the parents may or may not have done, the job of the teacher is fairly clear. She must create an environment which permits children to make continuous attempts to link the use of language with life's experiences and objects. This can be done by ensuring

  1. that children bring to school a variety of objects (such as leaves, stones, feathers, twigs, broken things) and talk about them, read about them and write about them;
  2. that children are asked to talk, write and read about the experiences they have had outside the school;
  3. that children are taken out of the classroom to see the world around the school so they can inspect ordinary objects carefully (objects such as a broken bridge, a muddy pit, a dead insect, a nest with eggs) and talk about them. Such study-visits in the school's immediate neighbourhood can provide valuable resources for language-learning.

So a school where children are not doing a variety of things with their hands, where they are mostly sitting and listening to the teacher, and where there are no objects to touch, manipulate, break and re-make, cannot be a good place to develop language skills.

Extracted from "The Child's language and the teacher - A handbook" , Krishna Kumar, UNICEF

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