Understanding language development

Authored by: Debra Myhill

The Routledge International Handbook of English, Language and Literacy Teaching

Print publication date:  February  2010
Online publication date:  February  2010

Print ISBN: 9780415469036
eBook ISBN: 9780203863091
Adobe ISBN: 9781135183141


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Language is what makes us human. Our ability as a species to talk distinguishes us clearly from other species and allows us to communicate with each other at a level of sophistication beyond that possible by any animal. Although many animals have well-developed communication systems, these all relate to functional, transactional communication in the present: for example a bee’s waggle dance telling other bees the location of a nectar source or a bird’s alarm call warning its chicks of danger. All attempts, and there have been many, to teach animals to use a symbolic language system have been unsuccessful. The grammar of language gives language systems infinite possibilities – we can discuss the past and speculate about the future, we can create records, and we can make jokes. It is through language that we think, reflect, imagine, speculate; through language, we contest, criticize and condemn. So while is axiomatic that language forms the foundation for the development of speaking, listening, reading and writing, language is also the tool with which we engage with our world and through which we construct our relationships. Understanding how language develops is, therefore, central to an understanding not just of language and literacy teaching, but also of the nature of learning and human communication. This chapter, then, will provide an overview of the social and psychological theories that attempt to explain how we learn to be articulate adults and will consider their significance for educational policy and practice.

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