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Things children do with language

Those who have studied children's language tell us that children start using language for a variety of purposes as soon as they have acquired mastery over basic abilities involved in talking.

Directing one's own activities:Children often talk about what they are doing at the time they are doing it. It is a kind of private commentary on their own action. Often, it seems, the commentary helps them in carrying on with the activity for a greater length of time. It helps them maintain their interest in it. It does not matter if someone listens to the commentary. For example, in a group of small children making tunnels or castles with damp sand, each child may make a separate commentary and often it may be no more than an audible mumble.

Directing others' activities and attention:This use of language is well known to us as parents and teachers since a lot of our time is spent meeting children's demands. We are usually quite conscious of demands that are of a physical nature, but other kinds of demands are also significant. These other kinds of demands can be intellectual or of an emotional nature. Children use language to draw attention to something that they find curious or attractive. They expect the listener to show interest in what has attracted their own attention.

If you observe children in a group, you will often find them drawing each other's attention by pointing out something or a characteristic of something they think others might have missed. The importance of this use of language lies in the expectation it expresses. The expectation is that 'others would like to see what I have noticed'. This expectation is based on a deep-seated assumption concerning human relationships and the pleasure of being together. If the person whose attention is being directed does not fulfil the expectation, a basic cause for the development of language gets discouraged.

To play: For most children from the age of two and a half onwards, words serve as a great resource for play and fun. They repeat words in different tones, distort them, combine them in strange combinations, and enjoy this whole process. They like to use words in situations where they may not be appropriate. They easily learn poems that distort words in this way. In brief, young children treat words as objects to play with. Play with words serves as an enormous outlet for creativity and energy.

Explaining things: Children talk about things to show their knowledge of 'how' a thing happened. For example, if you ask a child of three how it rained, the child will probably tell you that the sky was covered with grey clouds, then little drops began to fall, and then it rained hard, so hard that you couldn't see anything. In this example, by narrating the sequence of events, the child is explaining how a major event occurred. Stories are born out of this use of language, and in this sense all stories are explanations of things. Of course, not all stories provide reliable or scientific explanations of things. What they represent is our desire to interpret life. Small children want to interpret their life's events just as much as we adults want to explain events that have occurred in the world or in politics.

Representing life: This use of language is present in all other uses, but we need to study it separately or else we might overlook it. Children, just like adults, often use language to recall the past -- to remember an event, person, or just a small thing. Words help us re-create something that is no more around, and often what has been re-created looks so real that we can go on talking about it for a long time.

Children often represent things and experiences in order to come to terms with them -- to accept something at a deep emotional level. A child who has been frightened by something may talk about it many times over -- until he adjusts to it. Especially when life springs a surprise on the child, he overcomes the surprise (with its uncertainty, confusion and sometimes fear) by repeatedly re-creating the incident with the help of words until the incident becomes a familiar one.

Associating: When we listen to a story that someone is telling, about his own experience or someone else's, we respond to the story by associating ourselves with the characters and events described in the story. We project ourselves beyond our immediate life, even beyond our restricted past experiences, in order to relate to the story. When a child talks about the feelings of a metal toy, he imagines himself to be the toy. Language allows us to experience vicariously what someone else is going through.

Anticipating: Things that have not yet occurred, and some of which may not occur at all, form a subject of talk all the time. Children express their fears, plans, expectations and what they think might happen under strange circumstances, frequently. Words allow them to create an image of the future. Sometimes such an image helps in materialising the future; at other times it helps in accepting the future as it comes.

Inquiring and reasoning: Just about any situation can present a 'problem' that the small child must solve by finding out 'why' something is the way it is. Many problems are of the kind that the small child can successfully solve; for example, why a bus stopped all of a sudden, or why she does not like water to be poured on her head while she has her bath. The little child of three understands these 'problems' although not all children may be able to explain the precise reason in a vocal manner. Some children who can do so are most likely the ones who have heard adults using language to inquire or argue about something and who have been encouraged to do so themselves.

Unlike the 'problems' mentioned above, there are others that a small child cannot grasp in a 'scientific' sense. For example, the real reason 'why it rains' or 'why a tree falls down when the wind is very strong' is beyond the reach of a child of four or five. Yet, even such problems present excellent opportunities for the use of language as a means to reason. It does not matter whether the reason given is accurate or not. What is important is that the child uses language as a means to reason, to inquire about something unknown. The more frequently the child listens to adults using language for this function, the more likely is this function of language to become accessible to the child.

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

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