What Are The Requirements For A Functionalist

Theory Of Language Development? Essay, Research Paper

Most theories of language development have considered the matter from one of two broad viewpoints – behaviourist (language is learnt by imitation, e.g. Skinner), or innatist (particularly Chomsky, who believes that we are born with the necessary cognitive ‘equipment’ to learn language). However, these theories are not truly complete accounts of language development because they only begin to study from the first appearance of words and syntax; none considers how the child gets to this stage. This is where functionalist theories attempt to redress the balance; by concentrating on the functions, or uses, of language, they hope to understand why and how a child begins to use language. For such a theory to be valid, language development must meet certain requirements. The functions of language first need some qualification. Halliday (1975) separates the child’s utterances with two principal functions: mathematic, when language is used to learn about the environment and language itself (marked by falling intonation), and pragmatic, when language is used to satisfy the child’s needs and to interact with others (marked by rising intonation). He goes on to describe in more detail the initial functions that language serves in interactions: instrumental (the child’s demand for objects), regulatory (the child’s demand that another person do something), interactional (such as greeting), personal (expression of personal feeling), heuristic (questions about the environment), and imaginative (for make-believe). Jakobson (1960) attempts to qualify the functions of language in a slightly different way, for example , the conative function (when messages are formed to produce the desired behaviour in the addressee), and the phatic (maintenance of the channel of communication). Functionalist theories are based on the premise that the child begins to learn a language in order to fulfil more efficiently these functions of communication, and that the child develops structures out of these functions. The intention to communicate is what provokes language in the first place, but McShane (1980) suggests that this intention is not a ‘primitive’ within the child herself, but within the child-caretaker dyad. A functionalist theory would require that such intention is present before language itself appears, and this does seem to be the case. Wolff (1969) states that certain patterns of pre-linguistic crying are consistently interpreted by the caretaker; the child learns that there are contingent relations between her own utterances and the behaviour of other people, and thus learns to behave intentionally. Herein lies the problem: is this intent conscious, or is it merely interpreted as such by the caretaker? Ryan (1974) points out that much of what the child utters in the early stages is difficult to understand, if not uninterpretable; it is simply that these utterances take place in interactions with adults who are motivated to understand them. It is even found that mothers endow the earliest utterances with values such as ’sincerity’ and ‘consistency’. It seems likely that the infant begins by making unintentional cries; the caretaker endows them with intentions, and when the infant sees that her cries are being rewarded she makes them with the intention of receiving reward. Here, then, McShane is correct in saying that communicative intentions are a primitive of the dyad, rather than of the individual. When the child first begins to speak real words, they occur singly, as what are known to many as ‘holophrases’; cognitivists take these to represent whole sentences, but functionalists (such as Dore (1975)) prefer not to concentrate on the notion of a sentence, but rather to think in terms of ’speech acts’. Proposed by Searle in 1969, speech acts are the basic unit of linguistic communication, and include making statements, giving commands, asking questions and making promises. An utterance can be divided into two principal structural parts – propositional (the conceptual content), and illocutionary force (how the utterance is to be taken). Dore (1973) elaborates on Searle by describing one word utterances as ‘primitive speech acts’ (PSAs), which contain a rudimentary referring expression, and a primitive force indicating device; for example ‘mama’ can be used to perform three different PSAs: labelling, requesting and calling. The components of PSAs eventually develop into the propositions and illocutionary forces of speech acts, but only after the child has acquired most grammatical structures of his language. Speech acts form one of the basis of a functionalist theory of language development, as they focus more on the intent or purpose behind an utterance than on its grammar or syntax. One of the main features of functional theories is the concept of the infant-caretaker (usually the mother) dyad. The mother has a crucial central role in the child’s linguistic development, as from the earliest moment she treats the child as a conversational partner, e.g. when she burps (Snow, 1977). By the age of seven months, the mother only responds to ‘high quality’ vocalisations, i.e. she is shaping the infant’s behaviour. From about one year, the mother is devoted to getting the child to look out, point and vocalise at the right juncture in dialogue exchanges and child and mother increasingly share attention. The mother also shapes the child’s language by modification of her voice and her speech: as Snow (1978) points out, the mother’s speech register is phonologically, lexically, syntactically and semantically different to when speaking to an adult. It is simpler and more redundant: it has a very low MLU (mean length of utterance), a very low incidence of subordinate clauses and a very high repetition of utterance constituents or entire utterances (Snow, 1976). Ryan (1974) categorises the cues that mothers use when analysing their child’s speech: intonation patterns; accompaniments of the utterances such as pointing and playing; and the circumstances of the utterance, such as feed time. Despite it sounding very complex, the mother takes on her role absolutely naturally, and this appears to be the most important single factor in her child’s linguistic development. The main function of this infant-caretaker dyad is to provide a social and conceptual framework in which the infant develops: the child learns what to say and when to say it. This is learnt partly through play, for example, ‘peekaboo’ teaches the child about turn-taking in social interaction (Bruner, 1975). The earliest means of interacting is by mutual gaze – even infants as young as two to four months can follow an adult’s gaze (Scaife and Bruner, 1975), and this can be used to direct attention. Stem (1974) points out that the mother is less likely to look away when the infant is gazing at her than when she is not. Gazing forms the beginning of a social framework, which is then developed by turn-taking behaviours, which Sacks et al (1974) organise into two parts: (1) a turn-constructional component, whose basic factors are those relevant to organisation of speech within a speaking turn. (2) a turn-allocation component, which may proceed either by speaker selection or by self-selection. Even at three months, mothers treat infants as if they are taking their turn in a conversation, by behaviours such as smiling or burping (Snow, 1977). It is found that the amount and kind of turn-taking affects the ease with which children realise the communicative intentions in their speech (Lieven, 1978). By learning the social convention of communicative interactions, the child’s progress into linguistic communication is facilitated, as she knows to what purpose language can be used. One of the main uses to which language is put is to differentiate among a set of objects, and to refer precisely to any one. This ability begins to develop very early, before language: the mother’s line of regard constantly monitors and follows where the child looks, in order to interpret his demands better and elaborate on what he is attending to (Collis and Schaffer), i.e. the child is indicating by his line of vision the object of interest. This stage is followed by the child attempting to reach out for the object, then (by eight months) holding out his hand in a no-grasping directional gesture (Bruner, 1974/75); by one year, the child is starting to touch the object with his index finger. Such activities are the functional precursors to naming, i.e. the knowledge that every object has its own unique referent. Nelson (1973) points out that one of the mother’s central aims appears to be to get the child to name things, by playing games such as “where’s your nose?” This is one of the ways in which social interaction forms the basis for linguistic development. The child is well-equipped with the knowledge of the social functions of language by the time he actually begins to speak; his limited system is gradually restructured and conventionalised by the imposition of syntax and lexicon, whose function she now comprehends. A functional theory of language development is very convincing as far as it goes, and its requirement (i.e. communicative intentions, the role of the caretaker) appear to be readily fulfilled. However, it does not really explain how the child actually picks up the grammar and vocabulary: knowing what they are used for is not enough. To achieve a full understanding of a child’s linguistic development, the theory should be combined with something approaching Chomsky’s transformationalist approach; this combination should provide the reasons why children learn about language, and also exactly how they do it. BibliographyBruner (1975) ‘Ontogenesis of speech acts’ in Journal of Child Language, vol 2.Dore (1975) Journal of Child Language, vol 2.Halliday (1975) in McShane (1980) Learning to Talk, Cambridge University Press.Jakobson (1960) in Bruner (1974/75) Cognition, vol 3.Sacks et al (1974) in Snow (1976) Journal of Child Language, vol 4.Scaife and in Elliot (1981) Child Language, Cambridge University Press. Bruner (1975)


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