The Emphasis in Learning Language

Introduction

There is a close connection between the development of thought and the development of language. Language also develops within a social context and depends on social development (Bates, 1976). Various theorists attribute importance to different factors in the development of language. Theorists who are behaviorists focus on the importance of the language environment.

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Many students would likely cite a desire to learn as the primary reason for committing four years to a college education. One would question, what we really mean when the word “learn” is being used. Learning is something that takes place from birth, so most of us likely take this very complex process for granted. Many of us spend time trying to understand the meaning of learning. Or how it occurs. There are often many assumptions made about this process.

To continue educating students of the 21st century, educators must be willing to make social change. Educators need to look back at the great work that theorists such as Piaget, Vygotsky, and Dewey did in their time.

Piaget was someone who was interested in the relationship between thinking and language learning. He believed that children are born with and acquire “schemas,” or concepts. His theory describes how through the interactions with the environment children are able to construct their own understanding.

On the other hand, Vygotsky believed in social interaction. From his perspective language and cognition are intertwined. He suggested that learning is a matter of internalizing the language and actions of others. Children build new concepts by interacting with others who would provide feedback or help them to accomplish their tasks.

The emphasis in Learning Language

Developing the world around us is a lifetime process that begins at birth. For us to know about the regularity and predictability of the universe is important. This knowledge of knowing is called cognitive development and is learned through the mental process and sensory perceptions. The emphasis on learning development is greater than before, because of new research that is being done to help educators better understand the cognitive process that is at work in the child.

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The importance of communication can be often overlooked. Even with the ability to communicate with each other. Misunderstandings do happen. Communication is being observed as a two-way street and should not be ignored, it should rather be embraced. As we go through life we realize that language is important, and it is essential to every aspect and interaction in our lives. Being able to communicate, form bonds, teamwork, and it’s what separates humans from other animal species.

A central component of Piaget’s developmental theory of learning and thinking is that both involve the participation of the learner. Knowledge is not merely transmitted verbally but must be constructed and reconstructed by the learner. Piaget asserted that for a child to know and construct knowledge of the world the child must act on objects and it is this action that provides knowledge of those objects (Sigel, 1977). The ability to learn any cognitive content is always related to their stage of intellectual development. Children who are at a certain stage cannot be taught the concept of a higher stage.

Piaget’s theory impact learning in many different ways, but as educators, we must keep in mind the curriculum that we teach as well as how it is being taught. This is an essential part of the child’s development. His view of how children’s minds work and develop has been enormously influential, particularly in educational theory. His role was simply the growing up in children’s increasing capacity to understand the world in which they live. He also believed that children’s thinking does not develop entirely smoothly; instead, there are certain points at which it “takes off” and moves into completely new areas and capabilities.

The reason behind Piaget’s theory was to explain how and why the child develops into an individual who can think and reason using assumptions. A child’s continuous cognitive development is a result of how they mature and what they experience in the environment around them. The child will build an understanding of the world they live in and then find out the difference between what they know and what they discover.

Piaget’s idea was that children learn through action and that children are born with and acquire schemas, or concepts for how to act and respond to the world. He believed that as children explore their world, they form and reform ideas in their minds. He also states that as a child gets older schemas become more numerous and elaborate. “Because children construct their own knowledge, this does not come fully developed and is often quite different from that of an adult (McGee and Richgels 1966). So then, it is very important for adults to understand the process by which children learn.

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Piaget went on to explain that the intellectual growth of a child involves three fundamental processes: assimilation, accommodation, and equilibration. Assimilation involves the incorporation of new events into pre-existing cognitive structures. Accommodation means existing structures change to accommodate the new information. This dual process, assimilation-accommodation, enables the child to form schema. Equilibration involves the person striking a balance between himself and the environment, between assimilation and accommodation. When a child experiences a new event, disequilibrium sets in until he is able to assimilate and accommodate the new information and thus attain equilibrium. Piaget’s theory on language is that language depends on the thought for its development – thought comes before language.

The belief of Vygotsky somewhat differs from that of Piaget. He suggested that community plays a central role in the process of “making meaning,” which means that learning is necessary and is a universal aspect of the process of developing culturally organized, specifically human psychological function n. In other words, his argument is that social learning tends to precede development. His belief is that cognitive development stems from social interactions. This is caused through guided learning within the zone of proximal development as children and their partners co-construct knowledge. He contends that the environment in which children grow up will influence how they think and what they think about.

Vygotsky’s theory places more emphasis on the role of language in cognitive development. For him, cognitive development results from an internalization of language. He also thinks that thought and language are initially separate systems from the beginning of life, merging at around three years of age producing verbal thought or inner speech. Like Piaget, Vygotsky claimed that infants are born with tools of intellectual adaptation of which he describes four types of tools that are essential in a child’s development:

  • Attention
  • Sensation
  • Perception
  • Memory

These tools that are mentioned, are developed eventually through interaction within the sociocultural environment into a more sophisticated and effective process, which he refers to as Higher Mental Functions.

Vygotsky’s theory emphasized memory. He states that memory in young children is limited by biological factors. However, culture determines the type of memory strategy we develop. For example, in our culture in America, we learn how note-taking helps students in memory, but in pre-literate societies, other strategies must be developed, such as tying knots in the string to remember, or carrying pebbles, or repetition of the names of ancestors until large numbers can be repeated. He also mentioned that tools of intellectual adaptation as tools that allow children to use the basic mental functions more effectively, and these are culturally determined. One can say that the tools of intellectual adaptation vary from culture to culture – as in the memory example given.

The emphasis in Vygotsky’s theory was placed more on social contributions to the process of development. According to Vygotsky (1978), much important learning by the child occurs through social interaction with a skillful tutor. The tutor may model behaviors and /or provide verbal instructions for the child. Vygotsky refers to this as cooperative or collaborative dialogue. The child seeks to understand the actions or instructions provided by the tutor (often the parent or teacher) then internalizes the information, using it to guide or regulate their own performance.

A good example of Shaffer was given of a young girl who was given her first jigsaw puzzle. She made several attempts to solve the puzzle. The father then sits with her and described some basic strategies as to how to find the edge pieces for the child and provides a couple of pieces for the child to put together herself, he encourages her when she does well. As the child becomes more competent, she was allowed to work more independently. Vygotsky agreed that this type of social interaction involving cooperative or collaborative dialogue promotes cognitive development.

Language is viewed by Vygotsky as man’s greatest tool, a means for communicating with the outside world. He states that language develops from social interactions, for communication purposes, and that language plays two critical roles in cognitive development.

  1. It is the means by which adults transmit information to children.
  2. Language itself becomes a very powerful tool of intellectual adaptation.

For Vygotsky he saw differences between three forms of language: Social speech which is external communication used to talk to others which he described begins from the age of two; private speech begins from the age of three which is directed to self and serves as an intellectual function; and finally, private speech goes underground diminishing inaudibility as it takes on self-regulating function and is transformed into silent inner speech which begins at age seven.

His description of inner speech is that it is not the interior aspect of external speech – it is a function in itself. It still remains speech that is thought connected with words. But while in external speech thought is embodied in words in inner speech words die as they bring forth thought. Inner speech is a large extent thinking in pure meaning.

In Vygotsky’s theory, his belief is that thought and language are initially separate systems, from the beginning of life, merging at around three years of age. At this point speech and thought becomes interdependent; thought becomes verbal, speech becomes representational. When this happens, children’s monologues are internalized to become inner speech. The internalization of language is important as it drives cognitive development.

The thought of Vygotsky is that private speech is the transition point between social and inner speech the moment in development where language and thought unite to constitute verbal thinking. Private speech is “typically defined in contrast to social speech as speech addressed to the self not others) for the purpose of self-regulation (rather than communication)” (Diaz, 1992). Unlike inner speech which is covert meaning hidden, private speech is over.

Vygotsky also states that private speech does not merely accompany a child’s activity but acts as a tool used by the developing child to facilitate cognitive processes, such as overcoming task obstacles, enhancing imagination, thinking, and conscious awareness. (Winsler ET. Al., 2007) claim that children use private speech most often during intermediate difficult tasks because they are attempting to self-regulate by verbally planning and organizing their thoughts.

For Dewey learning was primarily an activity that arises from the personal experience of grappling with a problem. He was an influential philosopher. He sought to construct not just an educational theory but an entire world view. His view on learning was quite different. In his work Experience and Education, John Dewey emphasized the importance that previous experience and prior knowledge play in the development of new understanding. As (Bohonos 2013) suggested, taking the time to understand the life experiences of adult learners is particularly important.

Dewey viewed learning primarily as an activity that arises from the personal experience of grappling with a problem. He believed that everything is focused on our experience. We just can’t get beyond our experience. In his philosophical writing, language to him is not primarily the expression of thought, but the means of social communication. He states that if language is abstract from social activity and made amend in itself, it will not give his whole value as a means of development. His belief is that all children except the very seriously impaired, develop their innate language becomes rapidly from ages two to six. By the time they are six, they have developed speaking vocabularies in thousands of words and can speak with clarity and grammatical correctness without having had a single day of formal education.

John Dewey’s view was based mainly on experience and reflective thinking. The everyday world of common experience was all the reality that man had access to or needed to learn. He believed that once we can make a connection between what we do to things, and what happens to them or us, in consequence, is an experience. For example, if a child reaches for a candle flame and burns his hand, he experiences pain, but it is not an educational experience unless the child realizes that touching the flame resulted in a burn and, moreover, formulates the general expectation that flames will produce burns if touched. This example Dewey claims is the natural form of learning from experience, by doing and then reflecting on what happened.

Despite the fact that the theories specified above are the most well-known and are traditionally used when addressing the issues of fostering language learning, other concepts of language learning and the concepts that the emphasis should be put on in the process exist. Among the ones that seem to have been unfairly forgotten, the theory of Eriksson deserves a mentioning. Often listed in the line of the key concepts of childhood development and early learning together with Vygotsky’s theory and Piaget’s concept of five stages, the ideas of Eriksson also revolve around splitting the process of early childhood development into several key steps.

Unlike Vygotsky, however, who focused on childhood development in his theories for the most part and put very strong stress on the significance of early education, Eriksson splits the entire cycle of a person’s life into a range of evolutional stages. According to Eriksson, a person undergoes eight key developmental stages in the course of their life; each stage is attributed to a specific set of virtues, existential questions, significant others, and the psychosocial and emotional crises that a person goes through (Giddens, 2013):

Stage Virtue Psychological crisis Significant others Existential question Concerns
Infancy (0–2 years) Hope Trust vs. mistrust Mother Can I trust the world? Abandonment
Early Childhood (1-3 years) Will Autonomy vs. Uncertainty Mother and father Is It Okay To Be Me? Independence
Play Age (3-6 years) Purpose Initiative vs. Guilt Family members Is It Okay For Me To Do, Move and Act? Exploration of the world
School Age (6-12 years) Competence Industry vs. Inferiority Neighbor, teachers, peers Can I Make It In The World Of People And Things? Education and competition
Adolescence (12-18 years) Devotion Identity vs. Role Confusion Peers Who Am I? What Can I Be? Societal relationships
Young Adulthood (19-40 years) Love Intimacy vs. Isolation Friends and partners Can I love? Romantic relationships
Middle Adulthood (40-65 years) Care Generativity vs. Stagnation Family, workmates Can I Make My Life Count? Being accomplished
Late Adulthood (65 years – death) Wisdom The integrity of Self vs. Despair Humankind Is It Okay To Have Been Me? Retrospect on life

A closer look at the framework suggested by Eriksson will reveal that the researcher placed a greater emphasis on the psychosocial evolution of a person, as well as on the societal aspects of development, which resulted in identifying the entire life of a person as an unceasing process of development. In other words, Eriksson does not draw the line between the development of a child and that one of an adult – or, to be more exact, he shifts the emphasis from the age differentiation onto the psychoemotional process of a person’s development. For example, neither Piaget nor Vygotsky specified the virtues or the existential issues that a person develops at a specific age.

Therefore, Eriksson’s theory allows for making the link between the societal and the personal, which, therefore, leads to the understanding of the duality of the language acquisition process (i.e., the significance of language learning as a step forward in personal development and the acquisition of the corresponding communication skills as a crucial social skill facilitating the process of communication).

The shift from the specifics of personal development to personal development in the context of society, which Eriksson’s theory suggests, helps understand the process of second language acquisition from a social perspective and evaluate the social function of the language better. In a way, the ideas suggested by Eriksson allow for putting an even stronger emphasis on the development of language learning skills by stretching the concept of language skills acquisition to the idea of lifelong learning. Indeed, a closer look at mastering a foreign language will show that this process is quite lengthy – in fact, learning a second language completely is hardly attainable.

Therefore, the necessity to acquire various language skills throughout one’s entire life emerges. To make the issue even more complicated, one must mention that language is far from being stable – it evolves by acquiring new features and losing the old ones, including the changes in vocabulary, grammar, and the overall language structure. Hence, to keep in pace with the alterations that occur in a second language, the language learner must update their skills and knowledge regularly. Herein the concept of lifelong learning as the basic principle for second language acquisition lies.

Discussion

The three theories discussed above offer a range of perspectives to view the process of language learning. However, when narrowing the number of perspectives down a bit, one will realize that there are basically two of them, i.e., putting stronger stress onto the personal aspect and addressing the societal function of language. The choice of the theory, therefore, defines whether the emphasis should be put onto the communicational aspect of the language or its function as the tool for cognizing the world around and, therefore, contributing to personality development.

Early development

The significance of early development cannot be overrated. No matter what the choice between the four key theories results in, it is imperative that a learner should receive the required amount of information at the earliest stages of their development; particularly, the needs of a person at the infancy and the early childhood stages must be addressed with special care. A range of cases of the so-called feral children shows that once skipped, the specified stages will never be able to fill in the gaps in their evolution and, therefore, will never be able to either acquire any basic language skills or to integrate into society.

This phenomenon can be explained by the fact that language performs a very basic social function of getting a specific message across to the opponent; hence, without the skills of communicating their ideas, children will not be able to carry out the communication process.

The so-called social deprivation, which the feral children described above suffer from discloses a very important piece of information concerning the issues that need to be emphasized in the process of language learning.

Combined Approach

Identifying the approach that seems the most adequate when it comes to early childhood development and the provision of the appropriate environment for fostering the acquisition of language skills at a comparatively young age, one must admit that a comprehensive method, which incorporates the key points touched upon in Vygotsky’s, Piaget’s, Dewey’s and Eriksson’s theories. Though the individual and the societal aspects of language development can be distinguished rather easily in theory, in practice, the two are closely intertwined and obviously depend on each other.

Therefore, it will be reasonable to say that in language learning, the emphasis must be put on the process of oral communication. It would be wrong to claim that the personal evolution aspect must be dismissed completely; quite on the contrary, it must be reinforced so that the learner could have enough motivation for continuing the process of studying and becoming a lifelong learner. However, combining the personal aspect suggested by Piaget with the social one that Vygotsky and Eriksson communicate in their theories seems an essential step forward in developing the skills of a young learner.

To be more exact, it is crucial that the learner should use the communication tools acquired in the process of meta-cognition and the analysis of themselves and the role of language in their self-development in order to integrate into the society and become its active members.

At this point, it will be necessary to bring up the issue, which, of all researchers mentioned above, only Dewey pays a significant amount of attention to. Though independence in learning is quite a questionable issue, given the fact that a learner must be guided by a teacher in order to become self-sufficient and pass to the stage of self-education, it is important to realize that a learner must be given a chance to explore; otherwise, the learning process is bound to be counter-productive. This, in its turn, begs the question of whether it is reasonable to put an emphasis on promoting the learner’s independence in the process.

A learner’s autonomy is especially important in the process of second language learning process. However, it should be noted that second language studies already presuppose the existence of certain language experiences in the learner. Indeed, with the acquisition of second language skills, a learner already has a solid foundation to build their new knowledge on; there are many issues and phenomena to compare and contrast, not to mention the fact that, when acquiring a second language, the learner already has a set of unique language skills, which help them study the new one faster and more efficiently. The acquisition of the native tongue skills, on the contrary, occurs in the environment of a complete absence of any previous experience and, therefore, requires that the learner should be guided by the teacher.

The overbearing attitude of the teacher, as well as the lack of flexibility in the teaching approach, however, may trigger a significant drop in the learner’s motivation. In addition, the learner’s independence in language skills acquisition defines their social behavior to a considerable extent, given the link between language and society mentioned by Eriksson. In fact, though the necessity for the learner to be independent in their studies of the native tongue came quite late, the significance of the process was proven practically instantly:

Autonomy in language learning depends on the development and exercise of a capacity for detachment, critical reflection, decision making, and independent action (see Little 1991: 4); autonomous learners assume responsibility for determining the purpose, content, rhythm, and method of their learning, monitoring its progress, and evaluating its outcomes. (As cited in Benson, 2006, p. 23)

The autonomy of a young learner, therefore, must be among the key priorities of an educator. Despite the fact that an early learner needs sufficient guidance and support from the teacher, the latter must also provide the child with an opportunity to explore and to learn to apply the skills acquired in the course of the lesson to real-life challenges. For a child to become an active and enthusiastic learner, it is important to make sure that the focus on self-directed learning is included in the teaching process at a relatively early stage.

Even for an infant, who is only taking steps in distinguishing between different intonations of people’s voices, it is imperative that certain autonomy in the process of world exploration in general and language learning, in particular, should be provided. As the child grows, the degree, to which the learner is provided with independence, must grow as well; otherwise, the process of language acquisition is going to be slackened considerably.

It should be noted that the autonomy that a teacher provides a young student with should also stretch beyond the classroom. While the student’s activity in the classroom may seem satisfactory, it is the activity of the learner beyond the classroom that defines the success of the theory chosen for teaching the basics of the language. The rates of the learner’s independence beyond the classroom can be viewed as the key measure of the success of a particular teaching approach. At this point, it will be reasonable to bring up Dewey’s concept of natural learning.

Despite the fact that Vygotsky’s theory of developmental stages should clearly be viewed as the basis for the education system to be built on for young learners, Dewey’s idea of allowing the learner to employ the skills acquired in the classroom to their exploration of the world and especially the specifics of communication process must be included in the system of early childhood learning. As a result of independent and out-of-class learning, a child is most likely to develop self-instruction, which will serve as the basis for them to build their further exploration of the world in both its academic and social senses. Naturally, it could be argued that the concept of self-instruction, which, in fact, has received very little attention since its introduction into pedagogy, is merely the process of mimicking the people that the learner identifies as role models.

Nevertheless, self-instruction can be interpreted as a conscientious choice of the sources of knowledge for the learner to use in their education process, which can be classified as a rather independent manner of language acquisition and, therefore, should be encouraged by educators. This, however, invites the question of whether a young learner is capable of locating the proper source for acquiring the corresponding language skills.

At this point, it will be reasonable to bring up the role of parents as the key educators for a young learner. For the latter to develop independence in their language learning and at the same time obtain the necessary information from the source that is both trustworthy and comprehensive, it will be essential to reinforce the role of parents in promoting early language learning to the child.

Consequently, it will be a good idea to shift emphasis onto the role of parents in the early introduction of children to language learning. Indeed, according to the Social Interactions Theory suggested by Vygotsky, it is essential that a child should be able to communicate with linguistically knowledgeable adults and parents can be viewed as the primary source for language skills acquisition. As Poll (2012) explains,

Joint attention is one of several general learning abilities that contribute to language learning, according to social interactionist theory. Learning the language does not require a specialized innate ability, such as the Universal Grammar, but instead depends on the ability to understand that others have independent thoughts and motivations, and the ability to extract patterns related to language forms from the context of routines. (Poll, 2012, p. 582)

Advocating early language development among young learners is not an easy task, which is why it is imperative that the parents of young learners should be well prepared to the necessity to introduce their children to the process of language skills acquisition. Assuming that the process of language learning is restricted to the activities in the classroom environment and does not include the active participation of parents is one of the most dangerous misconceptions, which may lead to the underdevelopment of communication skills in a young learner. Hence, close attention must be paid to the two environments, in which a child acquires and trains their language skills, i.e., classroom and home.

It is important to bear in mind that, for a successful study of the language, it is essential for the learner to immerse into the atmosphere, in which the language in question is spoken. The focus on the home environment as the one that fosters language development, in its turn, presupposes that the parents should be responsible in their choice of language; to be more exact, the phenomenon is known as “baby talk,” or infant-directed speech, i.e., the process, in which the parents try mimicking the child mispronouncing certain sounds, must be discouraged and ceased. Otherwise, the entire process of early language skills acquisition and training may be jeopardized.

As McMurray’s research shows, though the negative outcomes of the infant-directed speech (IDS) have not been technically proven, the learning environment, in which IDS is used, is obviously being altered towards an artificial one: “In practice, however, no matter what the motivation, caregivers are clearly modulating the statistical environment in which infants learn, even if the precise segmental properties are not “designed” for the child’s developmental outcomes” (McMurray, Kovack-Lesh, Goodwin & McEchron, 2013).

Hence, the emphasis on language learning must be located so that the learner could view language as a tool for personal expression and information acquisition. In a broader context, such a vision of the early development process requires that the three basic theories specified above (i.e., the framework suggested by Piaget, the key concepts of Vygotsky’s theory, and the ideas of Dewey) should be deployed into a major strategy for teaching young learners language with the maximum efficacy.

True, the aforementioned method invites a range of opportunities; however, along with the new and fascinating options for early childhood development, the combination of Piaget’s, Vygotsky’s, and Dewey’s systems creates the premises for a range of conflicts and numerous issues to emerge. First and most obvious, the individuality factor must be taken into account. Though all people pass the stages outlined by the specified researchers in their development, the learners’ assets may differ considerably, which means that the framework suggested should be shaped to a considerable extent.

Reference List

Benson, P. (2006). Autonomy in language teaching and learning. Language Teaching, 40(1), 21–40.

Giddens, A. (2013). Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Cambridge, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

McMurray, B., Kovack-Lesh, K. A., Goodwin, D., & McEchron, W. (2013). Infant directed speech and the development of speech perception: Enhancing development or an unintended consequence? Cognition, 129(2), 362–378.

Poll, G. H. (2012). Increasing the odds: Applying emergentist theory in language intervention. Language, Speech and Hearing Services in School, 42(4), 580–591.

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