Understanding language and learning
Understanding language and learning

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Understanding language and learning

2 Learning language and learning about the world

In this section, we are going to develop the argument that when we first learn to use language as infants we transform our understanding of language and of the world in general. In other words, we learn to use language, and through using language, we learn. This mutual reinforcement between learning language and learning more generally continues throughout our life in both formal and informal learning contexts. In this section, we will also set out the sociocultural linguistic approach (SCLA) to language learning and learning more generally. This is an approach which emphasises the inextricability of language and learning. Another feature that characterises this approach is its emphasis on learning through social interaction, in contrast to an exclusive focus of learning as a mental and cognitive process.

Figure 1 Scarlett interacting with her father

You will start to consider the relationship between language and learning by looking closely at an informal exchange between a young child, her father and her grandmother.

Activity 1

Timing: Allow 1 hour
Download this video clip.Video player: Scarlett, father and grandmother
Skip transcript: Scarlett, father and grandmother

Transcript: Scarlett, father and grandmother

FATHER
Should we just fill up the watering cans?
SCARLETT
Yeah. It’s coming down nice.
FATHER
OK. Here you go. Do you want to put it here?
SCARLETT
Yes.
FATHER
Should we put that one in here as well?
SCARLETT
[INAUDIBLE].
FATHER
OK. Hold on to it. Say stop. When do you want me to stop? Now?
SCARLETT
Yes.
FATHER
Wow. OK. What are we going to water now?
SCARLETT
Right here.
FATHER
OK. I think what we should do is water these ones over here. Ooh, watch your feet.
SCARLETT
Where?
FATHER
Look over here. Let’s put some more in here. Oh, no, there’s another earwig in there. I don’t know why they’re called earwigs. But look at him.
SCARLETT
Keep him over here. Keep him over here.
FATHER
OK, I’ll put him over here. Let’s water these ones. And then let’s have a look what’s under here. Should we water this one together? What have I got here? Scarlet, look. What’s that?
SCARLETT
A spider.
FATHER
Why do you think it’s a spider?
SCARLETT
I don’t know. A beetle.
FATHER
How many legs has it got?
SCARLETT
Two. A beetle.
FATHER
It’s a beetle. It’s a beetle. Shall I try and pick him up?
SCARLETT
He’s moving.
FATHER
Look at him. Wow, that was a lucky find, wasn’t it?
SCARLETT
It’s a snail. It’s a snail.
FATHER
A snail? Do you want to go and find a snail?
SCARLETT
Two.
FATHER
What does a snail look like? What’s this? This is his foot, is it? We should go and have a look at the end of the garden, yeah? Should we see how many snails we can find? Do you want to go for the record of snails? What’s that one?
SCARLETT
A snail.
FATHER
What’s that?
SCARLETT
He’s not getting up.
FATHER
Should we just pop him here? Like so.
SCARLETT
[INAUDIBLE] him [INAUDIBLE].
FATHER
Oh! What’s that one then?
SCARLETT
I don’t know. Take him over here.
FATHER
OK, we’ll put him down here, shall we?
SCARLETT
He’s moving.
FATHER
How many feet has this one got?
SCARLETT
He has two.
FATHER
Two? Show me where the two are. I can’t see two legs. Look. Wow, you can see that those two are similar, aren’t they? Ooh, look, there’s the beetle. And there’s a snail. And do you know what this is called?
SCARLETT
No.
FATHER
Do you know what this is called? It’s called a slug.
SCARLETT
[INAUDIBLE] that one here.
FATHER
Yeah, the slug’s going down there, isn’t he? So look, look what’s different about them.
SCARLETT
You touched him.
FATHER
Yeah, this one’s got a shell. And this one hasn’t got a shell.
SCARLETT
[INAUDIBLE] down here.
FATHER
Yeah. So what’s that one called?
SCARLETT
A snail. A snail.
FATHER
And?
SCARLETT
What is he? I don’t know.
FATHER
It begins with S. Again, it’s slug. Right, I’ll find something else and see if you can - what’s that one called?
SCARLETT
I don’t know. Like this one.
FATHER
Which one is it like?
SCARLETT
This one [INAUDIBLE].
FATHER
OK, it’s not - is it like that one? Why is it not like that one?
SCARLETT
[INAUDIBLE].
FATHER
OK.
GRANDMOTHER
Are you going to show me your snails?
SCARLETT
[INAUDIBLE]. First we come here.
GRANDMOTHER
We come here? OK. I’ll come here. You’re going to find them? Where’s those snails gone that we had?
SCARLETT
They’re sleeping.
GRANDMOTHER
They’re sleeping, are they? They put their head in their shells, have they? What have we got in here? Ooh, what’s that, Scarlet? What color is that? What color is that, Scarlet?
SCARLETT
Not very nice. You put him down.
GRANDMOTHER
You put him down? Do you think - is that a worm?
SCARLETT
We like worms.
GRANDMOTHER
You like worms, do you?
SCARLETT
Yeah.
GRANDMOTHER
I think that’s a slug, isn’t it? Is it a yellowy.
SCARLETT
Not touch him.
GRANDMOTHER
Oh, not touch him?
SCARLETT
Yes. You put him down.
GRANDMOTHER
You want me to put him down?
SCARLETT
Yeah.
GRANDMOTHER
Why do you want me to put him down?
SCARLETT
Him not very nice.
GRANDMOTHER
It’s not very nice.
SCARLETT
No.
GRANDMOTHER
He’s all right. He won’t hurt us. Look, there’s a little tiny one, the baby one there. Can you see the baby one? Which is the baby one, Scarlett?
SCARLETT
This one here.
GRANDMOTHER
That’s the baby one. And that’s a big one. He’s not harmful, is he?
SCARLETT
He’s not hurt me. The little one not hurt me.
GRANDMOTHER
No, the little one won’t hurt you.
SCARLETT
Oh, OK. I like this little one.
GRANDMOTHER
You like the little one?
SCARLETT
Yes.
GRANDMOTHER
He’s moving. We’re not frightened of him, are we? No.
SCARLETT
Just a tiny little bit.
GRANDMOTHER
Just a tiny little bit, OK.
SCARLETT
No, don’t put your finger here. [? He’s ?] moving.
GRANDMOTHER
You watch now. You watch him climb down there. Oh, look, he’s going to get down that. Look how clever he is. He’s exploring. Do you think he’s going to find the grass?
SCARLETT
[INAUDIBLE] going home.
GRANDMOTHER
He’s going home, is he? Hm. That’s clever, isn’t it? Can you remember what colour these are?
SCARLETT
Yellow.
GRANDMOTHER
That’s right. And what about this one?
SCARLETT
Purple.
GRANDMOTHER
Is he purple? And what about those two? That one’s.
SCARLETT
Yellow.
GRANDMOTHER
That’s not yellow. What colour is that?
SCARLETT
White.
GRANDMOTHER
Yeah. And that’s one is? Is he brown? Do you think he’s brown? What colour is that one?
SCARLETT
Black.
GRANDMOTHER
He’s black. Oh, look. Look at the little - can you see the baby snail climbing up now?
SCARLETT
[INAUDIBLE] don’t touch him.
GRANDMOTHER
Not touch him? He won’t hurt you. Look. You touch him. You just touch his shell. There you are. It doesn’t hurt, does it?
SCARLETT
And this one.
GRANDMOTHER
You can touch that one as well - the big one. Both of them, they’re asleep I think. How many have got shells? How many? Count them.
SCARLETT
One. Not touch him. One, two.
GRANDMOTHER
What about that one?
SCARLETT
Three.
GRANDMOTHER
Three. Should we just pick a few leaves up to help daddy before we go? Shall we? Now you know you haven’t got to pick the nice ones, don’t you? Where’s your bucket?
SCARLETT
This is your [INAUDIBLE].
GRANDMOTHER
And this is my bucket. By the flowers over there. Would you like to pick the dead flowers for nanny? Look, if nanny puts you over there look. Would you like to pick the dead flowers off there for nanny, please? Just off that one there. Pick the dead leaves and put them in your bucket. Put your bucket down.
SCARLETT
[INAUDIBLE].
GRANDMOTHER
Is that dead?
SCARLETT
Yes. Not take this.
GRANDMOTHER
No, come on then. Step down there. You come and find the blue flowers. Where are the blue flowers, Scarlett? Are they dead, or are they alive?
SCARLETT
Alive.
GRANDMOTHER
Those are alive, are they? Well, we can’t pick those then, can we? Just get down on your knee and have a look. See if that’s alive. Is that alive?
SCARLETT
No.
GRANDMOTHER
Is that one alive? Does that smell nice? Do you think that’s OK?
SCARLETT
[INAUDIBLE]. Yeah. That’s [INAUDIBLE].
GRANDMOTHER
That’s OK, is it?
SCARLETT
Yeah. [INAUDIBLE].
GRANDMOTHER
We mustn’t pick those, must we?
SCARLETT
No.
GRANDMOTHER
No. What about the blue ones?
SCARLETT
No.
GRANDMOTHER
You mustn’t pick those either.
SCARLETT
No.
GRANDMOTHER
No.
SCARLETT
Just the leaves.
GRANDMOTHER
Just the leaves.
SCARLETT
Yeah.
GRANDMOTHER
Oh, that’s a good girl. There’s a leaf there. Look.
SCARLETT
[INAUDIBLE].
GRANDMOTHER
You picked that one up as well. Oh, that’s a lovely flower, isn’t it?
SCARLETT
[INAUDIBLE].
GRANDMOTHER
You’re not to pick those, no. You pick them off the ground, do you?
SCARLETT
Yes. [INAUDIBLE].
GRANDMOTHER
Put them in the bucket then. And some more.
SCARLETT
They’re dirty.
GRANDMOTHER
That one’s not ready yet, is it? No, you mustn’t do that one, must you? No, you can only pick the ones off of the ground.
SCARLETT
[INAUDIBLE].
GRANDMOTHER
Only [INAUDIBLE] yeah, there you are. Put them in the bucket.
SCARLETT
[INAUDIBLE] my bucket. [HUMMING]
GRANDMOTHER
Careful.
SCARLETT
[HUMMING]
GRANDMOTHER
Look, there’s a lot more down there, isn’t.
SCARLETT
These are your ones.
GRANDMOTHER
Those are my ones. Why are they my ones, Scarlett?
SCARLETT
Well, these are big.
GRANDMOTHER
Oh, they’re big because they’re my ones, OK. Put them in the bucket.
SCARLETT
[INAUDIBLE].
End transcript: Scarlett, father and grandmother
Scarlett, father and grandmother
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Watch the ‘Scarlett, father and grandmother’ video above. It shows Scarlett, aged two years and 11 months, talking to her father and grandmother in their garden in London, England. As you watch the unfolding interaction, note down the different types of learning you can observe. Provide an example of each. Consider, too, what role Scarlett’s family plays in the learning process. If you have already studied courses on language analysis, be as specific as you can about the language used.

Aspect of language acquisitionNotes
Grammatical structures
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Vocabulary
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Pronunciation
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Interaction
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Acquiring knowledge
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Words: 0
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Once you have written your notes, click on ‘Reveal discussion’ button below to read a commentary on the video clip. Please note that whereas you were requested to make notes, this is a more ‘polished’ commentary since it will form an important part of the teaching. There are many ways of responding to this activity, and your reply is unlikely to have made the same observations as the ones below.

Discussion

In the video, Scarlett is learning different aspects of the English language. For example, she is learning new vocabulary (‘beetle’, ‘slug’, etc.), and words she has previously learned (such as various colours and numbers) are carefully reinforced by her father and grandmother, including their correct pronunciation.

At the same time that Scarlett is learning language she is also learning something about the world. For example, she is learning (in a very rudimentary way) how to sort and classify the natural world. This includes learning how different types of insects (namely beetles and spiders) can be distinguished through different attributes (such as numbers of legs) and how slugs are different from snails through having (or not having) a shell. She is also learning to differentiate between leaves that are ‘alive’ and those that are dead. Such taxonomies are a fundamental resource in enabling Scarlett to begin ordering and categorising the world around her.

Scarlett is also learning how to interact with other human beings in order to exchange information and get things done. That is, she both listens and speaks to her family in an interactive process of ‘turn-taking’. Although she asks very few questions she finds out many new things when in response to her father’s questions she says, ‘I don’t know’. She can also give simple commands: ‘you come here’, ‘you put him down’, ‘don’t touch him’, in order to get people to do things for her.

Although in mature adult speech, commands are often expressed as either imperative clauses in which the subject (you) is absent – e.g. ‘come here’ – or expressed indirectly through interrogative clauses – e.g. ‘Could you come here?’ – Scarlett tends to use declaratives to make commands, which include the subject – ‘You come here’.

Did you notice how Scarlett’s father and grandmother use language structures first to facilitate cooperative interaction, using mood or question tags such as ‘isn’t it?’ and also to model causal relations, for instance ‘why are they …’ and ‘because they’re …’.

The clip shows that learning often occurs in social interaction. Although in other contexts this might well be peer interaction, here Scarlett is interacting with more expert adults who provide various kinds of support for her language and learning development; prompting, guiding and modelling, as appropriate. For example, Scarlett’s father, Dominic, asks her (while pointing to a slug), ‘Do you know what this is called?’ And then prompts her, ‘It begins with “s”’. He then provides the answer, ‘slug’. In many ways, then, Dominic is acting as an informal teacher for Scarlett’s development, with, in some cases, quite explicit teaching of both language and ‘content’.

This activity demonstrates the interdependency of language and learning. This inextricability between language and learning is a fundamental characteristic of the sociocultural linguistic approach (SCLA) to language and learning. Aside from emphasising the inextricability of language and learning, another feature of SCLA is its emphasis on learning through social interaction. In other words, according to this approach, learning can only take place through interaction with other human beings. This emphasis on interaction distinguishes this approach from other approaches to learning which pay more attention to the mental and cognitive processes of learning. In the next section, we will look at this in more detail and whether language and learning is a cognitive or social process.

Described image
Figure 2 Children interacting: a sociocultural linguistic approach to language and learning
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