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Talking about speaking

Individual Differences in Language Development, By Cecilia M Shore, Sage Publications #163;34.95. 0 8039 4879 4 #163;15.50. 0 8039 4880 8.

Until recently it has been accepted that children acquire language through broadly the same route; individual differences are ascribed purely to differential speeds of acquisition.

However, Cecilia Shore demonstrates just how much we still have to learn about the process, and offers a useful summary of research in this area. In particular, she highlights the fact that for different children there are different routes and styles of language acquisition; all children do not learn language in the same way. This has significant implications for future study and for normal and remedial interventions.

Drawing on a range of studies, Shore points to the existence of at least two distinct strands or lines of development, the referential and the expressive.

Shore uses classic case studies to illustrate these complex concepts making them more easily understandable. Referential language development is characterised by the use of nouns, and meaning is developed by the accumulation of two or more nouns, while expressive communication relies on the use of whole phrases, which at a later stage are broken down into their parts, and the parts become usable in a more versatile way.

She likens this to the foreign traveller, making good use of the traveller's language guide: there are those who assemble a sentence from the dictionary, high on content, rich in nouns, which will rely on the patience of the native language speaker to decode the condensed form; there are also those who go to the back of the book to the context-appropriate phrases, and reproduce the whole phrase or expression.

Different styles of language development dealt with by Shore include the way in which children learn the rules for word order and grammatical morphemes; the ways in which sounds are related to meaning (many children become familiar with the tune of the speech before focusing on the content); ways in which children use language to communicate and to fulfil their social roles.

A number of explanations are considered for variations in style of language development: they include features of early encounters with others, particularly the ways in which parents relate to children in the first two years and communicate with them: the child's own cognitive development; mimicry; and innate temperament.

Of particular interest is the range of explanations related to language systems themselves. Is language, or are languages, so constructed as to offer the child alternative routes to acquisition; for example, are semantics and syntax separable and therefore two alternative ways of approaching language?

These questions are not just those of research in progress; we need answers now, in order to inform our teaching of second languages, and to assist those with speech disorders. Excessive pre-occupation with drilling in grammar prevents the child from engaging in the meaning of the new (or old) language, and we need to ensure that the child is not constrained to follow, mistakenly, what is conceived of as the one true approach.

Shore puts forward an alternative theory on differences in language development and offers an important message on the significance of context in children's early language acquisition. The principal theme has significant implications for further research as well as practical implications for teacher trainers, teachers and parents.

Maureen Hughes is headteacher of Milecastle First School, Newcastle.

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