Our policy and research discourse on learning needs to evolve beyond stale recapitulations of curricula detached from context.
The nascent stirrings of communicative intents in infants mark the beginning of a trajectory that culminates after a few years into a fully formed oral language.
Distinct milestones — nearly universal across class and culture in sequencing if not in exact timing — act as conspicuous checkpoints along this verbal arc.
Some, like the utterance of the all-important first word, have permeated our societal imagination to such an extent that their occurrence is justifiably accompanied by the fanfare of a seminal life event. Others, like the phenomenon of canonical babbling in which the baby’s repetitive and seemingly nonsensical speech starts resembling the sounds of their parents’ language, are of niche interest to the research community investigating child development. Still others, like purposeful gesturing, are considered by many to be minor threads in this emerging patchwork of communication but can actually be traced to the rich tapestry of complex speech in later years. Finally, some developments, like a child’s ever-expanding repertoire of receptive and expressive vocabulary, have enough intricacy and typical variation that they are best conceived as a spectrum rather than conveniently separable milestones.
This primer above is by no means a holistic introduction to a young child’s oral language trajectory. It ignores how communication shapes and is shaped by other developmental domains such as cognitive and social-emotional competencies. It does not attempt to describe the variation in reaching such milestones within and across socioeconomic status. And crucially, it omits a piece of the language development puzzle that will be the focus of the remainder of this article: the influence of context.
While the extent to which the impulse towards certain subdomains of language is guided by an innate set of structural rules independent of experience — a position for which Noam Chomsky is perhaps the most recognisable advocate — is still a matter of debate, the acknowledgement that context plays a role is not. For young children, their proximal context is mainly the home environment. In Pakistan, where early childhood education is haphazard in its availability for all but the elite and child-centric public spaces are the exception rather than the norm, the walls of the home may well demarcate the limits of the child’s world.
But what specific factors within this world are crucial to language development in the early years? Is it the number of engaging books within easy reach? Does the presence of older siblings accelerate or hinder language acquisition? Or is it simply a function of the sheer amount of time parents are able to dedicate exclusively to their children? Sadly, the absence of rigorous empirical research exploring early language development in Pakistan compels us to look elsewhere to locate answers and take a leap of faith in assuming the results generalise; bits of empirical evidence from such studies in different contexts suggest all these factors have a role to play. But the main protagonist seems to be conversational turn-taking.
A conversational turn is a verbal exchange between a child and adult around a specific topic. Conversational turns are an oral form of broader social exchanges sometimes called serve and return interactions. This tennis analogy has its shortcomings, because a sports purist may well argue that the ideal serve isn't returnable. But let’s put aside our pedantic athletic predilections for a moment and consider an example.
A child can "serve" an attempt at an interaction by pointing to an object and asking: "What is that?" An attentive adult can "return" by responding, "That’s a blue ball," thus completing the turn.
The example I have presented is purposely a simplistic one. The optimal types of contingent conversation are mirrored by a child’s particular developmental stage and her ability to understand and articulate speech containing varying levels of lexical, syntactic, and emotional complexity. This fluid social interplay of a child’s capability at a given time and a caregiver’s adeptness at gently coaxing her along to ever-greener pastures of understanding neatly aligns with the concept of the zone of proximal development, an old but still influential constructivist learning theory postulated by Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist.
One type of a more complex conversation — which does not always have to be contingent but is particularly effective when it is — that is suitable for pre-school age children is decontextualised talk. Such talk is summarised in a 2013 paper by Dr Meredith Rowe — a developmental psychologist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education whose teaching and research this article heavily relies on — as "abstract language removed from the here and now". Dr Rowe writes that "utterances used during pretend play" and "non-immediate talk during book reading" are some common examples. As such talk compels a child to consider language independent of its visible referents and may also be more semantically complex than routine conversations, its effects on vocabulary development are thought to be powerful.
Along with the consequential academic implications of using decontextualised talk, consider the sentimental angle: Those of us who constantly sought refuge in imagined worlds during early childhood and invited receptive adults to accompany us in our explorations may have been unwittingly setting ourselves up for long-term linguistic success.
Let us veer away from the whimsical back into the empirical: Are verbal exchanges like these really at the crux of development?
A 2018 paper in The Journal of Neuroscience explores this question and presents an elegant — albeit associative and not causal — convergence of behavioural and neuroscientific evidence that endorses the primacy of conversational turn-taking. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recruited families with young children between the ages of four and seven years from across the socioeconomic spectrum. Audio recorders containing software that coded language into words and utterances documented the naturalistic language environment over one weekend in the homes of these families. When these data were compared with the results generated from a type of neuroimaging method the children underwent known as diffusion magnetic resonance imaging, a harmonious reconciliation of brain and behaviour emerged: a higher number of conversational turns were associated with "more coherent white matter connectivity" — which plays an essential role in establishing relationships between different parts of the brain — in cerebral regions known to contribute to language ability. Tellingly, the results held even after socioeconomic status and the absolute number of adult words were accounted for.
The implications of such results for Pakistan’s context are multi-faceted.
Most obviously, many of us have caregiving responsibilities towards young children even if we are not parents: as elder siblings, as uncles and aunts, and as impromptu babysitters. By attending to these communicative needs of children, we can play a role in their language development.
Secondly, those of us working in the education and development sectors tend to have a deficit-based mindset towards the parents of children from under-served communities. The most ubiquitous example is the fallacy of thinking of parents’ language ability in binary terms, as either literate or illiterate. The research I have cited in this piece should serve to complexify our understanding of the home context and hopefully make us realise our biases and heuristics do not map onto reality. I will leave it to the reader to ponder over the consequences of such a paradigm shift on our understanding of children’s literacy skills.
Lastly, and more broadly, our policy and research discourse on learning needs to evolve beyond stale recapitulations of curricula detached from context, away from discussions of learning outcomes unencumbered by an understanding of developmental domains, past legislative orientations based on ideological whims rather than evidence, and finally, towards a philosophy where the holistic flourishing of our children is the guidepost of our social policy.
Abdullah Ali Khan recently completed an Ed.M. in Mind, Brain, and Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education on a Fulbright scholarship. He is a Teach For Pakistan alumnus, and tweets @akhan_91.
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