Conversations with Children

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 21 November 2016

Conversations with Children

Language is a form of communication wherein children learn how to convey their emotions, thoughts and ideas verbally. Not only is language a tool of communication, it’s also an implement of thinking which is related to the way in which children acquire knowledge, their reasoning and their observations. Within this essay I shall be discussing what and how children learn in the process of conducting a conversation with an adult, by exploring children’s acquisition in terms of linguistic and communicative competence with reference to the dialogue and other supporting evidence. In relation to linguistic competence, Linguist Noam Chomsky (1990, 1986) affirms that ‘language is an innate human ability which is biologically determined and follows a predictable path’ (Mayor, 2012, pg 92) suggesting that children are familiar with language from birth. However, Chomsky in contrast also states that ‘minimal language input is required to trigger the language learning process’ (Mayor, 2012, pg 92) testifying that a caregiver’s contribution plays is imperative role in a child’s development.

Barbara Mayor, corresponding to Chomsky’s beliefs, has observed that ‘babies are primed even within the womb to attend to the particular ‘melody’ of the language that surrounds them’ (Mayor, 2012, pg 92) such as, a mother’s voice. In comparison to both Chomsky’s and Mayor’s philosophy, Elinor Ochs (1979) argues that non-verbal communication emerges before children can verbally communicate, such as ‘touching, pointing, and eye gaze…reaching, holding up, waving, pushing away, head shaking, and the like’ (Ochs, 1979, pg 12, in Mayor, pg 93) designating that minors can interact with their caregivers, almost like having ‘a conversation without words’ (Wells, 1985, pg 24, in Mayor, 2012, pg 93). Gordon Well’s observation coincides with that of Mayor’s, who asserts that a baby’s first experience of language across many cultures is likely to be in dialogue with a caregiver’ (Mayor, 2012, pg 93).

But, how do children learn how to conduct a conversation? In early education, minors learn to converse by creating sounds, firstly by hearing different sounds around them which then urge and encourage children to respond. Babies particularly, learn how to manipulate their vocal sounds in order to make verbal contact with their caregiver such as a ‘cry’ which later progresses to a ‘babbling’. Mayor mentions that ‘their early experimentations of babbling soon differentiates the particular sounds which are meaningful in their linguistic community from those which are not’ (Mayor, 2012, pg 92). Elinor Ochs and Bambi Schieffelin (1979) also mention that ‘children begin by learning speech and only gradually learn the language that corresponds to these in the community around them’ (Ochs and Schieffelin, 1979, in Mayor, pg 93).

In studying communicative competence, by being able to conduct a conversation, it has been observed that language mannerisms between caregiver and child, can exemplify the speech that assists the acquisition of language. During this acquisition caregivers display a unique style of speech in which linguistics has referred to as Child Directed speech (CDS), also known as ‘baby talk’ (Mayor, 2012, pg 93) which consist of several features. The first is Phonological wherein caregivers change the rate of speech, use a clearer pronunciation and a higher and more exaggerated pitch allowing children to comprehend words a little easier. The second feature is Lexical, in that adults use shorter and simples phrases whilst employing a more grammatical usage. Syntactic features are the last element where caregivers use a simplified form of speech by using shorter utterances, rather than full sentences sequentially illustrating meaning to their young.

In terms of CDS and in reference to the chosen dialogue, it is evident that Anna is capable of comprehending what her mother is saying by the way she responds. It’s apparent that Anna is capable in terms of being able to use short words and long, grammatical sentences. Although she is not correct at times, Anna, in her own way can interpret and express herself through her language; an example of this can be seen in line 18. CDS therefore, permits children to distinguish linguistic patterns by firstly learning word order and then developing a profound understanding of sentence structures. Telegraphic speech is a prime example of a speech act. According to linguistics, telegraphic speech consists of a two-word stage of language acquisition used by children aged 2-3, (Anna’s age), that creates a number of joined utterances. These words then become multiple and children learn how to conduct telegraphic sentences.

In the dialogue it’s clear that Anna has developed a sense of being able to build sentences and is able to use word order correctly. It is through telegraphic speech that children learn how to acquire grammatical inflections in word forms and prepositions such as ‘in’ and ‘on’, this can be seen in line 14 of the dialogue also. Discourse and context play a role in teaching children language. Discourse identifies that language has ‘a social purpose’ (North, 2012, pg 133), and allows us ‘to communicate with other people to establish and maintain relationships, to share feelings, to exchange information, or to influence their behaviour’ (North, 2012, pg 133). Barbara Mayor and Daniel Allington declare that context is significant as it ‘refers to the physical location and social circumstances in which a particular example of language use occurs’ (Mayor and Allington, 2012, pg 6). The dialogue is set in informal setting, the sense of language between mother and daughter within the dialogue is perceived accordingly in this type of social setting in that is relaxed.

In regards to grammatical development, competence generally precedes performance wherein children are taught to comprehend a language before being able to speak it. In reference to communicative competence Del Hymes states that ‘a normal child acquires knowledge of sentences, not only as grammatical, but also as appropriate. He or she acquires competence as to when to speak, when not, and as to what to talk about with whom, when, where, in what matter’ (Hymes, 1972, pg 277, In Mayor, pg 106). Holding a conversation with a child can be difficult in terms of captivating their attention, however as Hymes explores, the majority of conversations between caregivers and children are based upon the subject of their interests, such as; family members etc. In this dialogue this is evident seeing that the conversation is based upon drawing both cars and trains for her parents.

Another trait in CDS is repetition in which is used to prolong an adult/child conversation by enabling the flow of speech. Repetition can be seen in lines, 3, 5, and 9 of the dialogue where the mother has repeated Anna’s previous comment. Another method used in CDS and perhaps the most essential rule of conversation is turn taking. Turn taking has a primary function that allows the infant to learn conversational structure. Taking turns seems to be a straight forward implement; however other factors need to be addressed in order for a child to fully appreciate the procedures. Within the dialogue, Anna has learnt that she has to take turns and actually appears to be rather good at it. Transition Relevance Place also known as TRP, identified and named by Sacks (1998 [1995]), is when a conversation between one person and another follows fluently.

However, it is common for an overlap during conversation in which a person mistakes a TRP and takes their turn of speaking before the previous speaker is able to carry on with their turn. This overlapping of speech can sometimes be unintentional depending on whether a legitimate TRP occurs or not. Referring to the dialogue, in line 1 we can see that the mother is the first speaker in which she speaks with an utterance made up of one so-called TCU (a question). At the end of this TCU (line 1) is a TRP in which the role of the speaker and the listener swop, in line 2 Anna recognised the TRP and speaks.

North (2012) has identified that sometimes listeners respond to a previous speakers at a TRP, not by trying to take a turn of speech but instead by showing an interest and by encouraging the speaker to continue talking. This can be seen in 11 in the dialogue ‘Mhm’. North mentions that in terms of taking part in a conversation ‘you cannot just say anything; you have to respond appropriately’ (North, 2012, pg 158). Harvey Sacks agrees and identifies that ‘spoken exchanges are composed of ‘single units’ or ‘composites’, which tend to function together in pairs’, in which he named these units ‘adjacency pairs’ (Schegloff and Sacks, 1973, In Mayor and Allington, pg11).

Adjacency pairs are an underlying aspect of conversational-turn taking where one speaker provokes a responding utterance from the second speaker. Question and answer is a common adjacency pair and can be seen in the dialogue throughout lines 1, 3, 7, 13 and 15, which are responded too, by Anna, in a ‘preferred response’. Other adjacency pairs are ‘dispreferred’ responses (responses the listener doesn’t want to hear).

Hymes, D. H. (1972) ‘On communicative competence’ in Pride, J. B. and Holmes, J. (eds) Sociolinguistics: Selected Readings, Harmondsworth, Penguin.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 21 November 2016

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