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spacer How do people learn language in a range of contexts?


Children use language modes and media to differing extents as they develop their ability to communicate using language. For some children language use is almost entirely spoken, nonverbal or visual. These children may have a comparatively rich language resource in these areas. Other children also have access to written language experiences that enable them to use a wide range and combination of modes.

There is also variation in the range of genres in which children are specifically encouraged to participate within their communities. Literary type genres in spoken, written and visual forms are a feature of home life for some children. Genres used for gathering and for exchanging information are emphasised in other homes and communities. Some families value both types of language use.

Most children begin to be aware of the world and the people in it from their earliest weeks of life. They learn the language of their homes and communities as they interact with their family and friends to negotiate meanings. They are expected to communicate in a variety of contexts and are encouraged to make their meanings clear.

Children learn language and learn about the world at the same time. Their world views begin to take shape as they pattern their language on that used by the adults and older children close to them. At this early stage of their development, young girls and boys learn social roles from those around them. In learning these they also learn the language which defines and reinforces views associated with these roles in their community.

To varying extents, parents and others support children's development by encouraging them to use language and by building on the language they produce. Most children also have involvement with activities recounted by their relatives and, increasingly, with activities associated with books and the electronic media, especially television. At an early age, most children start to reflect upon language and how it makes meaning.

Most children speak their first language with a reasonable degree of proficiency before they go to school. They have generally begun to use and appreciate spoken literature and the mass communication media. Some have had experiences with written literature and some have even started to read and write. They continue to develop their spoken language and their literacy during their school years and throughout their lives. This development will reflect the purposes for which they are called upon to use spoken and written language in work and leisure activities.

Whatever their circumstances, children's language learning is related to a range of features that characterise their individuality. These features vary from ways those in their home and local community think, act and interact. They are also an outcome of the specific aspects of a person's well being, including their inherited characteristics and characteristics resulting from health and physical factors.

Each child's individuality can be described as a unique combination of these cultural circumstances and intrinsic characteristics. The language development of children varies with their individuality. Some young people need additional or specialised assistance to maximise their language learning.

Children's language development is enhanced when their home-based experiences are broadened through school and other activities outside the home. This development is further accelerated as children develop their literacy abilities through participating in spoken and written language activities in and out of school.

For some children, the home expectations about learning spoken and written language differ from those of school. Many such children require special support to function confidently in both contexts. Their need is not only to develop their spoken language and literacy abilities necessary for their full participation in Australian society, but also to value simultaneously the differing perspectives of home and school.

The range of differing expectations in a pluralist society such as Australia's is quite wide. Expectations of homes and schools may vary as a result of differences in:

  • the home language or first language of the child and of the school
  • the backgrounds of students and members of the school community
  • belief systems or ideologies of the home and the school community
  • ethical values of the home and the school
  • community priorities related to geographical location
  • financial capacity of the home and financial demands of schooling
  • children's responsibilities to the family and those to their school
  • beliefs about the place of mass media in society and in children's learning
  • learning styles valued by the home and the local community.
These cultural differences are integral to planning undertaken by school communities. Such planning assists young people to take advantage of opportunities offered by schooling and to feel comfortable about doing so. In many instances the school needs to make special efforts to change its practice to respond to identified home and school differences. These responses should enable children to build upon their prior language experiences, to broaden their literacy abilities, and to enhance their appreciation of language use.

Language learning is dependent upon the ability to perceive and process images, information, ideas and opinions. Sometimes, one or more of a child's sensory or intellectual abilities are impaired; in other instances, one or more of these abilities are so sensitive that a child is often said to be talented. Children with impairments or special talents in any of these areas may require particular support to develop their language ability to its potential. Such support varies according to the quality and intensity of:
  • sensory functioning in areas of hearing, vision, taste, touch, smell, kinaesthetics, space, propiception
  • intellectual functioning in areas of logical, imaginative or critical thinking.
Language learning is also dependent upon the ability of people to interact purposefully with others in a variety of cultural and social contexts. Physical and emotional disabilities in children may inhibit the range of their social interaction; physical or emotional talents may also influence such interaction. Children with disabilities or talents in one or more of these areas may require specialised support to ensure a balanced language development. This support is dependent upon the kind and degree of:
  • physical and neurological functioning related to coordination associated with speech, handwriting, mobility and balance
  • emotional and social functioning related to deprivation, cooperation, anxiety, social skills, alienation, enthusiasm.
The intrinsic characteristics of each child are, therefore, a unique combination of their functioning in sensory, intellectual, physical, neurological, and social ares. Children need to use their areas of strength to assist in the development of other abilities. They also need to learn to value the special contributions they can make as active, informed citizens.

As children learn what special contributions they can make in their community, they can be assertive about their abilities and so earn the confidence and respect of other community members.

Influences on language learning vary over time for individuals and groups of children. Each child is a complex being whose experiences of life and language use are constantly changing. Any of the differences outlined above could have an effect on a child's learning of English. Moreover, these influences may also interact with each other in a variety of ways.

Through experience in using language in many cultural contexts, most children become aware of some subtleties in language use at quite an early age.

From their experiences in familiar contexts, children generally develop an implicit awareness of elements that affect language use. Such elements include confidence in using language, use of stress and pause in spoken language, comparing and selecting a more appropriate expression, and knowing when to use spoken or written language. This awareness challenges children to develop and refine their language ability.

Conscious awareness of elements that affect language use enables children to reflect on the nature of language and its effectiveness in various social contexts.

[Source: Queensland English Syllabus for Years 1 to 10   Dept of Education, Queensland, 1994]
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