Activity Fifteen Reading your own and other students work

Below is an extract from a student essay. Read the essay, and then think about it in relation to the questions that we used for 'analytic reading'.

How do children's semantic mistakes throw light on the process of language acquisition?

Theories of child language acquisition try to explain what processes are taking place as the child develops and uses language effectively. They examine the ways in which the child's linguistic ability is linked to her conceptualizations and perceptions of the world around her. As the child develops her language ability, her language becomes closer to that of the adults in her world and it appears that she attaches the same meanings as the adults around her to the words that she uses. Children appear to pass through remarkably similar stages of language acquisition and make many of the same mistakes. Evidence from research into these mistakes made during the first years of life has enabled some understanding of how language may be acquired. Do children have a conceptual understanding before they develop the ability to refer to an object, situation or state linguistically? Alternatively, does the linguistic identification enable the conceptualization of a particular state? How does a child eventually arrive at the same semantic understanding as most adults for most categories, after what often seems a fairly complex process of trial and error? Why are children so unresponsive to correction in language acquisition? Research has tried to find answers to these questions and has enabled the construction of theories which account for children's development in the use of language, regardless of language or culture.

Researchers have looked, primarily, at three main areas as evidence for the way in which language is acquired:

1. Overextensions

2. Underextensions

3. Overlaps

In these three areas children's language use has been compared with that of adults. Overextensions are very common in children's language, where a child will overextend the use of a word to give it a wider meaning than that normally understood by adults, e.g. 'dog' used for other mammals. Evidence of overextensions in early language development plays a large part in the construction of acquisition theory. Underextensions are more difficult to detect, as they can be easily confused with the child's correct use. A child using 'kitty' for a specific animal and not other cats could be underextending. Overlap, also more difficult to identify, occurs when children use a lexical item with a meaning that overlaps with the adult meaning but where the meaning appears limited, for example, a child using 'car' for all toy cars but not as a general word for car.

Four main theoretical perspectives can be identified as being useful but partial theories of child language acquisition. These are: semantic feature hypothesis; prototype theory; functional core concept theory; and lexical contrast theory. All four perspectives rely on empirical research of children's lexical and semantic errors and attempt to identify the processes through which children attach meaning to lexical representation.

(The student then goes on and describes these four theories and compares and contrasts them with each other, concentrating on the strengths and weaknesses of each position and citing a number of authors who have developed and argued for each particular theory. She concludes her essay as follows.)

From an examination of recent theories of language acquisition it appears that most developments have been a result of identifying those areas of production where children appear to make mistakes. The relationship between the child's overall cognitive development, perceptual understanding and semantic development seems to underlie all attempts to explain what processes are at work as children acquire language. Some theories make reference to the importance of children's non-linguistic abilities, but it seems questionable if it is possible to draw any useful linguistic inferences from these. Such abilities may be non-linguistic in a productive sense but is there any truly non-linguistic comprehension, since children generally live within a world in which they are continually exposed to language? The perceptual categories identified by researchers as non-linguistic can only be identified through linguistic categories. All the theories discussed have thrown some light on language acquisition but none are capable of giving more than a partial explanation for the process that takes place. It is evident that children continue to make mistakes, which indicates a lack of some semantic understanding long after the initial stages of acquisition. Although language is primarily a communicative tool and the child appears to work gradually towards a consensus with adult meanings, it has been shown that children are not open to correction in language learning. This would suggest that they are building up their own understandings of the semantic categories and syntactic structures available to them but are unable to be self-correcting until they reach particular levels of understanding regarding how different categories are related to and interact with one another. General cognitive development enables higher levels of perceptual understanding to be reached as the child's general interaction with the world around her becomes more complex. At the point where she appears to be understanding more about both syntactic and semantic complexity, the child continues to make mistakes much as an adult searching his mental lexicon for a suitable word in a hitherto unknown situation. The development of the child's language enables a further understanding of the world in which she lives and thus, in turn, the ability for her to use the language available to her and her semantic understanding to structure her world.

This is only a short extract from an essay in a traditional format, but we are using it as an example to show you how you can use the 'analytic' reading strategies to read and work on your own and other peer student writing. This is a good exercise for working with other students on 'analytic' reading. Reading each other's work is a good way both to practise this kind of reading and to help focus on your own writing. If, for example, it is difficult to make the links between the themes or bring out a central idea, then a bit of redrafting would be useful before handing in the assignment. These ideas are taken up again in Chapter 10.

Below are the sorts of comment that a fellow student might make on reading the extract in Activity Fifteen using the 'analytic' reading questions (since this is only an extract we cannot fully address all the questions):

You introduce the essay well by telling me that this is going to be about the ways in which children develop language. Then you go on to make connections with the mistakes that children make and ask some questions about these mistakes and how they eventually stop making them. So I think that I am clear at this stage what the essay is going to be about. On the next bit I'm not really quite clear what you are saying. You identify these three different categories and say that they are evidence about how 'language is acquired', but then you go on to talk about how they are actually about children using language in the wrong way. So, I'm a bit lost here. I think that you are definitely assuming that I have quite a bit of particular background knowledge because you use all sorts of words and concepts, like those four theoretical perspectives, which would be really difficult for somebody who wasn't doing linguistics. But you'd assume that the tutor would know what they were about and she is the one marking it. You use these four theories as evidence for what you want to say and then seem in a sense to really develop your position on the argument in the concluding bit. I think quite a lot of students do that. They outline what other authors say and then at the very end introduce their own interpretation of the evidence. You seem to be challenging the idea of there being 'non-linguistic' categories. The other part of your argument seems to be that all the different theories that you have discussed only give a partial answer to how children acquire language. Your evidence for this is that children go on making mistakes long after they have gone through the initial stages of language acquisition. I think the ideas that you conclude with do relate back to the main body of the essay [not shown] because you have explained what you saw as the limitations of each theoretical position as you went along. You do introduce a new idea here in the conclusion. You talk about the ways in which children are building up both their own ideas of the world and the language to describe it at the same time. Then you say that they cannot really correct their mistakes until they have the level of understanding of how different things are connected and relate to one another. You didn't talk about any of this in the main part of the essay. I suppose in a sense you are using this new idea to support your position that present theories are only partial. In a way you put almost all your argument in the concluding paragraph.

Using this last exercise for reading each other's work helps us to remember, first, that reading is integral to the whole process of writing assignments and is relevant at every stage, and second, that reading does not have to be a solitary activity. Talk about your reading with other students whenever possible; in the long run, doing so will help you to understand more fully what you have read. Other students will have read other things from the same text. Pooling your ideas and thoughts on complicated academic texts can help you make more sense of them. Your ideas will still be your own when you come to write them into your assignment, but sharing them helps you with interpretation.

We hope that by the time you have finished this chapter you will feel less daunted at the idea of reading for your assignments, and will have had the time to experiment with some of the approaches that we suggest. If you have been working through this book from the beginning, you should now have a clear sense of what is involved in the early stages of the process of writing your assignment.

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