Cultural Diversity and Language Socialization in the Early Years
Eunjin Park, New York University & Kendall King, Georgetown University
Children become linguistically and culturally competent members of their community through interactions with caregivers and other more competent members of their community (Ochs & Schieffelin, 1984; Schieffelin & Ochs, 1986). Through this language socialization, children learn the behaviors that are culturally appropriate in their community (Schieffelin & Ochs, 1986).
As a culturally and linguistically diverse student population is, or will soon be, the norm in most U.S. schools, developing an understanding of the ways that children are socialized at home is increasingly important. Many children bring to school not only a new language, but also cultural ways of using language that differ from those of mainstream school culture (Heath, 1983; Zentella, 1997). These differences can lead teachers to underestimate or misinterpret the competence of students. In order for all students to have equal opportunities for educational success, teachers must be aware not only of what children need to learn, but
also of the knowledge and skills that they bring from their linguistic and cultural backgrounds (Cummins, 1986; Fillmore & Snow, 2002; Genesee, 1994; Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992).
This digest summarizes research on language socialization; outlines some of the ways that children are socialized into their home culture, such as caregiver speech and concepts of the self, illustrated with social practices in East Asian cultures; and suggests educational implications of this research.
Language Socialization Research
Language socialization research provides important insight into young children’s linguistic and cultural development and helps us understand the relationships between the cultural context and the use of language with and around children (Schieffelin & Ochs, 1986). Cultural context includes what community members believe about language and its use—values and ideas concerning language and its speakers, as well as ideas about language teaching and learning. Language socialization studies focus on naturally occurring interactions with and around children and analyze the ways that the community’s norms are expressed.
Language socialization research sheds light not only on what children learn in their communities, but also on how they learn: in particular, how children acquire ways of learning in their communities before they enter school. Historically, when linguistic minority children have behaved at school according to their own cultural values and norms, they have been regarded as deficient rather than as different by educators (Ochs, 1997; Zentella, 1997). A Korean-American child, for example, who behaves politely according to Korean standards might be regarded as dependent and insecure. Teachers may perceive ethnic and linguistic minority children as having difficulties in learning, when in fact the children are learning in ways that are culturally appropriate in their own communities (see, e.g., Fillmore & Snow, 2002; Ochs & Schieffelin, 1984; Philips, 1983).
Language Socialization at Home
How is it that even very young students come to school with well-established communication patterns, such as ways of expressing politeness? Studies of children’s interaction with their caregivers suggest how these interactions foster behaviors that contribute to their emerging identities.
Caregiver speech. Adults interact with children differently across cultures and communities. In some communities, for example, caregivers use simplified, child-directed speech: baby-talk. In others, adults make no or few adjustments when they speak to young children. They do not view young children as appropriate or competent conversational partners (Kulick, 1992; Ochs & Schieffelin, 1984; Schieffelin & Ochs, 1986). Caregivers also interpret and clarify children’s babbling or unintelligible speech according to their community’s beliefs. These and other differences in interaction patterns have been categorized into two general styles of child-raising: child-centered and situation-centered.
In child-centered contexts, mothers and other caretakers view children as potential conversational partners and engage them in conversations in routines such as greetings and question-answer from birth. Adults adjust their speech to children by using two strategies: self-lowering through baby-talk and child-raising by interpreting unintelligible utterances (Heath, 1983; Ochs & Schieffelin, 1984). In these contexts, children are socialized through simplified language and are gradually introduced to the language of adults.
In situation-centered contexts, adults tend not to simplify their speech for young children. Children are expected to learn to understand and produce adult-like language by observing it. Children are responsible for their own language acquisition, and they must learn on their own to make themselves understood and to interpret others’ responses to them. The interpretation skills that children acquire are considered essential to being competent language users in families and communities (Heath, 1983).
Although most adults generally engage in both types of practices—child-centered and situation-centered—the important point is that family and community members tend to hold different sets of beliefs about children’s language acquisition and development. These beliefs influence their speech with and around children and contribute to the ways that children develop their concept of self.
Concept of self. Through social interactions with others, children gradually construct their ideas of who they are (Schieffelin & Ochs, 1986). Thus, their concept of self is interwoven with the society and culture to which they belong. In some communities, children are socialized to construct a relational, interpersonal, or collective self, whereas in others they are socialized to construct an individualistic and autonomous self (Brown, 1996, p. 39). The former notion of the self has often been attributed to Asian cultures, and the latter has been found more commonly in North America. These contrasting patterns of the self are revealed linguistically. There are clear relationships between the relational self and linguistic forms in Asian languages such as Javanese, Japanese, and Korean. For instance, relationships such as kinship, status, age, gender, and degree of intimacy are marked linguistically in these languages. Thus, information about the relationship between speakers and others is critical not only when speaking to someone, but when speaking about someone or something. In Korean, the relative sociocultural status of the speaker, the person being spoken to, and the person being talked about is marked with honorifics. Korean has six levels of honorifics—words or word parts that encode relationship—each with its own distinct verb endings. In many everyday utterances, Korean speakers express their social identity and position in relation to others. Indicating relative sociocultural status with specific linguistic features is obligatory in East Asian cultures such as those of China, Japan, and Korea (Kasper, 1990).
Politeness in East Asian cultures. Politeness generally is more highly valued and widely observed in everyday practice in East Asian cultures. For Koreans, for example, politeness includes expressions of deference, respect, and social hierarchy, which are marked by honorifics. A speaker must choose the appropriate expressions and verb endings to reflect the social relationships among speakers (Koo, 1996). An individual who fails to do this is subject to disapproval. For example, if a child does not use the appropriate verb endings to express respect to an adult, the adult will be offended, and the child will be reprimanded for rudeness.
In general, parents are responsible for teaching their children the proper use of polite expressions and behaviors. Among Khmer families in Cambodia, a child’s polite behavior is considered a sign of the family’s high social status and the child’s good moral upbringing. Thus Khmer parents raise their children to display behaviors such as greeting elders in polite ways or addressing others with proper terms that mark relative social status (Smith-Hefner, 1999).
Children internalize such beliefs and ideas, including the concept of politeness and its appropriate expressions, in daily interaction in their homes and communities. Through these naturally-occurring language socialization experiences, children construct their identity in relation to others. As children acquire their mother tongue at home, they also learn who they are and how they should behave.
Implications for Educators and Parents
What children learn through interactions with caregivers and community members may not correspond to the ways of talking and behaving that are valued in school. Many children who bring culturally different practices to school are misunderstood, academically underestimated, and devalued (Ballenger, 1999; Heath, 1983; Philips, 1983; Smitherman, 1977; Walker-Moffat, 1995; Zentella, 1997). These children, in turn, may feel less confident about their ability to succeed at school and to convey their knowledge to others (Cummins, 1986).
In order to minimize children’s stress and maximize their opportunities in school, it is important for educators to understand what their students bring to school. Respecting the knowledge of students’ families and encouraging parents to get involved in school activities can be the first step in this process (Faltis, 1993; Moll et al., 1992). Understanding that there are different ways of interacting and using language is crucial for successful communication with students (Ballenger, 1999; Erickson & Mohatt, 1982; Philips, 1983; Wolfram, Adger, & Christian, 1999).
Beyond understanding that linguistic systems and cultures differ, educators need to use them as resources for learning (Ruiz, 1984; Valdés, 1996; Walker-Moffat, 1995). Examples of efforts to do so include teachers incorporating a community’s storytelling styles into class discussion activities (Au, 1980) and involving students in research projects that draw on the knowledge and expertise in the community and use that as the basis for literacy instruction and formal school learning (Moll et al., 1992). Efforts such as these, which recognize and embrace children’s linguistic and cultural backgrounds and skills, can help to ensure that all children have the opportunity to be valued members of the classroom community and experience academic success.
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Socialization and Culture
by Loretta F. Kasper, Ph.D.
The discipline of sociology can be defined as the scientific study of human social behavior and activities and of the results of these social activities.Sociology is concerned with how human beings think and act as social creatures.In fact, the basic premise of sociology is that human existence is social existence.This means that people are linked to one another and depend on each other for their very existence.In fact, our sense of individual identity, that is, our sense of who and what we are, depends on how we interact with other people.
We all enter this world as potentially social beings.When we are born, we are essentially helpless and must depend upon others to fulfill our most basic physiological needs.As we grow and mature, we experience an ongoing process of social interaction which enables us to develop the skills we will need to participate in human society.This ongoing process is called socialization.Socialization is critical for human society as a whole because it is the means of teaching culture to each new generation.
Social Experience and Human Development
The importance of social experience is evident in the lack of human development characteristic of socially isolated children.Specifically, if early childhood is devoid of social experience, the child may fail to develop normal language skills leading to limitations in other social learning.Genie, the young girl who was shut away by her father, is a prime example of what can happen to a human child who is deprived of social contact.Although Genie received intensive training after she was found, she never fully recovered from the effects of the lack of early social experiences.
Many psychologists and sociologists have studied the process of socialization.Sigmund Freud believed that people learn the cultural values and norms which make up a part of the personality which he called, the superego.If the superego did not develop properly, the person would have a very difficult time functioning in society.Jean Piaget believed that human development is the result of both biological maturation and increasing social experiences.George Herbert Mead believed that an individual's social experience was the primary determinant of individual identity, which Mead called "the self."To Mead, the self contained two dimensions: the "I," which was partly guided from within; and the "me," which was partly guided by the reactions of others.Charles Horton Cooley also emphasized the importance of the reactions of others to the developing self-concept.He used the term, "looking-glass self," to describe how our conception of ourselves is influenced by our perceptions of how others respond to us.
Agents of Socialization: Family, School, Peers, and the Mass Media
We begin the process of socialization within the context of our family.The family has primary importance in shaping a child's attitudes and behavior because it provides the context in which the first and most long-lasting intimate social relationships are formed.In addition to representing the child's entire social world, the family also determines the child's initial social status and identity in terms of race, religion, social class, and gender.
While the family offers the child intimate social relationships, the school offers more objective social relationships.School is a social institution, and as such, has direct responsibility for instilling in, or teaching, the individual the information, skills, and values that society considers important for social life.In school, children learn the skills of interpersonal interaction.They learn to share, to take turns, and to compromise with their peers.
The peer groupexerts a most powerful social influence on the child.The peer group is composed of status equals; that is, all children within a given peer group are the same age and come from the same social status.A child must earn his/her social position within the peer group; this position does not come naturally, as it does in the family.Interaction with a peer group loosens the child's bonds to the family; it provides both an alternative model for behavior and new social norms and values.To become fully socialized, children must learn how to deal with the conflicting views and values of all of the people who are important in their lives.These people are called "significant others."
The mass media includes television, newspapers, magazines; in fact, all means of communication which are directed toward a vast audience in society.The mass media, especially television, have considerable influence on the process of socialization.Children spend a great deal of their time watching television, and the violent content of many television programs is believed to be a contributing factor in aggressive behavior.
Socialization helps to shape and define our thoughts, feelings, and actions, and it provides us with a model for our behavior.As children become socialized, they learn how to fit into and to function as productive members of human society.Socialization teaches us the cultural values and norms that provide the guidelines for our everyday life.
Culture may be defined as the beliefs, values, behavior, and material objects shared by a particular group of people.Culture is a way of life that a number of people have in common.Our culture is reflected in what we wear to work, when and what we eat, and how we spend our leisure time.Culture provides the framework within which our lives become meaningful, based on standards of success, beauty, and goodness.Some cultures value competition, while others emphasize cooperation.Our culture affects virtually every aspect of our lives.Culture is not innate; human beings create culture.Culture consists of a set of principles and traditions transmitted from generation to generation, yet because human beings have created it, culture is flexible and subject to change.
Human culture is linked to the biological evolution of human beings.The creation of culture became possible only after the brain size of our early ancestors increased, enabling humans to construct their natural environment for themselves.Because human beings are creative by nature, they have developed diverse, or different, ways of life.
Cultural diversity is the result of geographical location, religious beliefs, and lifestyles.Culture is based on symbols, attaching significance to objects and patterns of behavior.Language is the most important expression of cultural symbolism.Sharing beliefs, thoughts, and feelings with others is the basis of culture, and language makes this possible.Language is also the most important means of cultural transmission.Language enables human beings to transmit culture not only in the present, but also from past to future generations. Language is probably the most powerful evidence of our humanity.According to two linguistic anthropologists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, the language that we speak actually determines the reality that we experience.This Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that we know the world only in terms of what our language provides, that language shapes culture as a whole.For example, while the English language has only one word for "snow," the Inuit language has different words that describe different types of snow.This occurs because distinguishing between, for example, falling snow and drifting snow is so important to the life of the Inuit.
While it may be true that language shapes culture, it is probably equally true that culture shapes language.For example, the increasing use of computers has led to new words and phrases in the language.Words such as "gigabyte" and "RAM" (random access memory), while commonplace in English today, did not exist 50 years ago.As more and more countries become technologically advanced, new words and phrases will also become part of their languages.So language and culture are interrelated, and changes in either one are likely to result in changes in the other.
Directions:Using the context of the reading passage, write a definition for the following words and sociological terms.
Directions:Using the information provided in the reading and your own words, write an answer to each of the following questions.
1.Briefly describe the discipline of sociology.
2.What is socialization, and why is it important for human society?
3.What happens to children who are deprived of early social experience?
4.What are some of the agents of socialization?
5.In what way(s) are the social relationships formed in school different from those formed in the family?
6.Why is the peer group such a powerful social influence on the child?
7.Why are government officials trying to limit the violence shown on television programs?
8.What are some of the indicators of our culture?
9.What is the relationship between the development of culture and the size of the human brain?
10.How is language related to culture?