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Study of child language acquisition needed in China

LI YUMING | 2022-06-02 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

A preschool teacher explains how to use provided materials to make artwork in a Beijing kindergarten. Photo: Yang Xue/CSST

Language plays an important role in children’s all-round healthy development. Study of the laws of children’s language acquisition will not only help parents and preschool teachers better plan language education, but also assist pediatricians, language pathologists, and special-education teachers in early language consultation and rehabilitation. It could function as a basis for the early development of human resources.

Language key to children’s growth
It is commonly recognized that physical growth, mental growth, and language development constitute the three most important aspects of a child’s growth. The significance of language acquisition is central to a child’s life. 
First of all, language development is closely related to mental growth. Though mental growth will mature with children’s age, accumulation of experience and knowledge, and sensory development, language plays a key role in helping children establish their native language cognition, adjust their state of mind, and constantly improve the function of the various senses. Native language skills help children build a knowledge framework and develop an essential medium for information communication. Academics have long discussed the relationship between language and thought, including which comes first, which is in control, and the process of their mutual reinforcement. As far as children’s development is concerned, the answer is quite straightforward, because language and thought cannot be separated—they promote each other and develop together.
Second, children’s physical development is also linked to language. The cultivation of lifestyles, formation of healthy habits, physical exercises, harm avoidance, and psychological and emotional regulation, cannot be sustained without adult language. Descriptions of physical discomfort, expressions of dietary desires, and team coordination in games and sports all involve language participation. To say the least, physical and mental health requires a certain level of verbal communication.
Language development in childhood is most amazing. Children are the little savants of language learning. Most start to speak at about the age of 1, and by the age of 5, they have mastered the basic structure of their mother tongue and can have fluent conversations, their language acquisition mechanism remains a scientific mystery. 
Some scholars have attempted to offer answers to this impossible question: One is the imitation theory in structuralism, and another is American theoretical linguist Noam Chomsky’s argument that children’s minds have an innate and biologically developed ability to learn human dialects. In fact, both answers have flaws. Child language acquisition needs imitation, but it is by no means a mechanical imitation. There are genetic biological factors in children’s language development, but language learning later in life also carries weight that cannot be overlooked. The language or dialect a child learns is not innate, nor is the number of languages they can pick up. Different language environments have a great influence on children’s vocabularies. Language education directly affects children’s abilities to use language, including whether to use limited code or complete code, exercise logic, and achieve a certain level of literacy.
A large number of studies have shown that language systems are embedded in human beings’ encyclopedic wisdom, and the language system and encyclopedic wisdom system match the human mind-body system, which is a “mind-body synergy” proposed in embodied linguistics. It can be said that language, thought, and physical movements have strong correlations. Therefore, to promote comprehensive and healthy growth for children, we must place great emphasis on children’s language development and education.
Previous studies 
Humans have long noticed the growth trajectory for early language development. However, the topic only drew wide academic attention in the last 230 years. The 20th century saw a rapid development in child linguistics, also called developmental linguistics. 
Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget was the first to perform a systematic study of the acquisition and understanding of language in children. He explained the development of early language, psychology, and logic from the perspective of genetic epistemology. Russian psychologists, such as Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky, Alexei Nikolaevich Leontyev, and Alexander R. Luria, studied the social and psychological functions of children’s language development extensively, and the influence of environment and education. Behavioral psychologists, such as John Watson, regard a child’s brain as a “blank state,” acquiring knowledge through constant “stimulus-response.” It is worth noting that the “blank state” theory exaggerates the role of stimulus (language input) and ignores innate factors and children’s subjective initiative in acquiring language. Transformational generative linguists, represented by Chomsky, believe that there is an innate language acquisition mechanism in children’s brains, known as “universal grammar.” Children learn language by constantly assigning values to universal grammar under their language acquisition mechanism. 
All of these studies try to explain children’s language acquisition from theoretical perspectives, or create a hypothesis for a specific theory in children’s language development, a practice which improves the academic popularity of the study of early language development.
Since the 1970s, corpus linguistics has gained momentum, and the study of children’s language has been carried out under a corpus methodology. At present, there are more than 350 children’s corpora in the world, the largest of which is the CHILDES Children’s Language Data Exchange System established by Carnegie Mellon University in the United States in 1984. The development of children’s language materials has expanded from written records to audio and video recordings. Research methodologies in children’s language development have also evolved from a more structural analysis into pragmatic analysis, hyperlinguistic analysis, and family and social background analysis. Some studies even consider equipping children with “language companions” and “intelligent teachers.” Research on children’s language acquisition has developed from early data collection to theoretical interpretation, and is now trending towards the realistic significance of promoting children’s language development and education.
The study of child language development in China began with psychologist Chen Heqin. In 1920, he began to record the language development of his son, Chen Yiming, and his findings were published in the Study of Child Psychology in 1925. At that time, Guo Canran, Gao Juefu, Huang Yi, Zhu Yuren, and other notable scholars also performed research, producing several pioneering achievements. After 1978, Zhu Zhixian, Lin Chongde, Zhu Manshu, Miao Xiaochun, Xu Zhengyuan, Gui Shichun, and their team ushered in the study of children’s language in a new era. Now, scholars in the field continue to push the study into open waters. 
However, on the whole, the study of child language acquisition in China is still relatively weak, with limited academic outcomes. There is a lack of basic data on Chinese children’s language development, including some major languages, main dialects, and bilingual learning. There is no recognized or constant scale of Chinese children’s language development through all stages, and there is even less research on the development of children’s pragmatic competence. 
Despite this, the study of early language not only has great multidisciplinary theoretical significance, but also is the academic foundation of children’s language education, which urgently should be strengthened. As mankind is entering an information age, language and modern language technology are playing an increasingly important role in human life. Integrating the information age’s language needs into children’s language research and education is a major topic these days.
Language education
Scholars in the field usually come from varied academic backgrounds, thus they use different research paradigms, research methods, and have a range of academic objectives. However, many current researchers use children’s language materials to address issues in the field, rather than issues “for the sake of children.” As the field of study evolves, developmental linguistics should be established to study children’s language acquisition on the behalf of children, whose tasks include, but are not limited to, describing the state of children’s language development, revealing its development laws, explaining the relationship between children’s language development and mental development, and discovering malfunctions such as language disorders, with the goal of providing academic support for the healthy development of children’s language and offering academic services for parents, preschool teachers, pediatricians, and other caretakers if needed.
Family is the earliest classroom for children, and parents are the first teachers. Parent-child dialogue is presumably the best textbook. That said, we must help parents improve child language education and understand that our future society is a multilingual society, so parents should create opportunities for children to learn multiple languages. Most parents are new to parenting, so they need structured and adequate instructions on how to carry out daily reading and writing activities with their children. In 2017, UNESCO called for the participation of family members in reading, writing, and learning, and many countries have launched family literacy projects. China should follow suit.
Preschool teachers, as professionals in children’s education, should attach importance to embodied linguistics, and deepen understandings of “mind-body coordination” in which language systems, encyclopedic wisdom systems, and brain-body systems match each other. Child language education needs to be carried out with love and care, to promote children’s psychosomatic development. At the same time, preschool teachers also have the responsibility to help parents avoid family education missteps, reduce family education anxiety, and improve the quality of family education.
Departments of ophthalmology and otolaryngology in China have a fine tradition of observation, diagnosis, and correction of children’s eyesight and hearing. Now, counseling on children’s language development is also on the rise. The detection, diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation of childhood language disorders requires a language test scale for children, in accordance with China’s reality. China is a country with multiple dialects, and the living environments for children are becoming increasingly complex, with multiple language barriers. Currently, the test scales used in clinical practice are mostly borrowed from foreign countries, some of which are effective, but need adjustments in line with China’s national conditions. China needs to boost clinical linguistics to better train clinical language workers.
Historically, many language acquisition researchers have been psychologists, medical workers, and linguists who are also concerned parents. Today, parents with a background in psychology, linguistics, sociology, pediatrics, neuroscience, pathology, information science, computer science, preschool education, and children’s literature can all be invited to add to children’s language development. This type of “research-based family education” will certainly help family education obtain higher academic value, and the materials accumulated can also serve as souvenirs and memories for children as they grow up. 
Li Yuming is from the Advanced Innovation Center for Language Resources at Beijing Language and Culture University.
Edited by YANG XUE