Exam Essay January 2004 AQA Spec B Unit 6 by HG. MODEL ANSWER

9 June 2009

The transcript has been set in both a domestic and a child’s play context, and the fact that the speakers involved are of a completely different linguistic capability due to age, makes the interactions all the more interesting. Although the playgroup assistant tries to address the children at the same level, using the same register, there are pragmatic connotations of patronisation because he/she is involved at a much deeper intellectual level. The way in which the caregivers interact with the children says a lot about their preferred methods of language acquisition, and there is clear evidence of Piaget’s theory of egocentric speech. The children, particularly Victoria are clearly using language to explore the environment around them, and attempt to include the adults in their own imaginary world. This also links in with Michael Halliday’s taxonomy which states that labelling is one of the fundamental aspects of language. The children feel a need to use declaratives and exclamations to state what is happening around them and what they are doing to try and help others understand them and try to understand themselves.
In terms of initiation of conversation, the caregivers are usually responsible, because although they are clearly looking down on them in terms of register and cannot really address them at their same level, they are trying to develop the topic, encourage socialisation and get the children into the habit of giving reasons for their actions, and appreciating the larger picture. For example, when Sophie is talking about how she is making her cake with playdoh, the Playground Assistant cleverly responds with two cleverly placed interrogatives: “you rolled it out did you Sophie? (2.0) who helps mummy bake?”. Here, she is re-capping what has happened and encouraging Sophie to think at a deeper level by making the connection between her child’s play and real baking at home. At an even deeper pragmatic level, the assistant is hinting at Sophie’s capability as a cook and suggesting that she should help her elders. Sophie plays along, and the conversation develops as she gives a piece of her “cake” to the playgroup assistant, perhaps because it gives her a feeling of superiority and motherliness. The assistant rewards this development by rewarding her with positive reinforcement.
In fact, the behaviourist theories of Skinner are clearly evident in this transcript, as the caregivers constantly reward the children for good behaviour and speech, by thanking them and using deictic declaratives such as “that’s there” and “like that” to guide them. However, I found the techniques fairly unusual compared to research that I have carried out myself. I filmed a session at a playgroup party which my cousin of 20 months attended, and found that the language used by the carers there also used negative reinforcement and correction, and that many of the statements had an interrogative tagged on the end, such as “wow that’s very pretty, isn’t it?”, in order to constantly demand interaction and response from the children themselves.
The lexis and grammar used by the children is often non-standard as would be expected at such a crucial learning and language development stage. Perhaps the most obvious grammatical variation is the use of overgeneralization by Sophie, Victoria and Jordan (who imitates the others) when they say: “it’s ate” and “you’ve been eaten again”. Here, the children have attempted to be adventurous and use the past tense, though they clearly unaware of the fact that the past participle of the verb “to eat” is irregular, and is therefore “eaten” not “ate”. This backs up Chomsky’s idea that we have a built-in LAD (language acquisition device). This is because it is obvious that the children have been made aware of a grammatical rule and have attempted to use it, but still do not know of the contexts where the rule does not apply or where there are irregularities. Also in this example, there is some confusion as to whether to use the active or the passive voice. Perhaps they are trying to say that the cake has been eaten, and then carried the rule forward when they meant to use the possessive pronoun “yours” to say “your cake has been eaten again”. Although these key auxiliary verbs have been omitted, it is still fairly easy to understand the semantic meanings the children are trying to display. One could deduct that although the children are being minimalistic in their grammatical approach, they are able to express themselves fairly well.
In cases where the child does not know the semantic label for an object, instead of guessing (which would result in a mismatch), they tend to use an adjective to try and interpret what they mean, e.g. “look at the blue”. Although it is unclear to us as the reader what object Victoria is referring to, the other people in the situation are likely to know what she means, particularly as it is likely that this exclamation was accompanied by paralinguistic features.
The caregivers themselves sometimes use non standard grammar, which is evidence against Skinner’s ideas on imitation; because it could be argued that this non-standard grammar will have an effect on the grammar development of the impressionable children. The main example of this is when the playgroup assistant asks “Sophie gave it you?” The removal of the preposition ‘to’ is common in informal speech and many dialects but may cause confusion if the children think that indirect verbs such ‘give’ and ‘speak’ do not require the construction ‘to’ after them.
The lexis is mostly monosyllabic for simplicity reasons, and more emphasis is placed on the content of speech rather than on the lexical capacity of the children, because the transcript was written in a context of child’s play and social interaction is more important than linguistic education. There are lots of concrete nouns within the text such as ‘cake; and ‘playdoh’, and although there is a lack of abstract concepts within the lexis, there are distinct pragmatics of friendship, duty and helping one another. There are lots of verbs, as there is an emphasis on actions, and some of them are particularly dynamic such as ‘scream’, ‘break it in two’, and ‘cutting up’. This is because the environment is very active, and there is an impression that the caregivers are struggling to keep the children under control.
Phonologically speaking, there are some examples of reduplication, and although theories suggest that this is outgrown at a much younger age, it is evidence that children still like to play around with sounds and explore language by babbling. As Vygotski says, egocentric speech is something we never outgrow and we actually rely on it. Timmy takes the word ‘do’ and then experiments by making a rhythm/song by repeating this syllable.
The language of the playground assistant is not particularly lexically diverse, though he/she clearly has a greater lexical capacity than the children. Instead of using this however, he/she tends to make the instructions more visual by giving demonstrations, pointing at things and handing out objects. The caregivers use simple sentences, easily accessible syntax and lots of demonstrative pronouns to keep the children’s interest whilst also encouraging them to learn new words such as ‘floury’ and ‘elephant’.
The negotiations and interactions of the parent is noticeably different to the methods used by the playground assistants, possibly because they have a closer and more informal relationship with their child, and they feel a lesser responsibility towards their social development at playtime. After all, the playgroup assistant is paid for this purpose and will have received relevant training. The parent prefers to use negative reinforcement: “oh my goodness me (1.0) scream the house down”, and there are heavy connotations which suggest that noise is bad, and that the child is notorious for being overly noisy and therefore an annoyance to the parent.
The playground assistant however, is constantly provoking a personal response from the children by using direct imperatives and interrogatives, never letting her attention wander, and allowing herself to be involved with the conversation at all times whilst almost distancing herself and encouraging the children to play amongst each other. He/she acts as a mediator and is clearly trying to keep the peace and do what is fair and unbiased. The caregivers try to get involved by developing the ideas of the children and trying to join them in their imaginary world, however the language they use is more phatic and realistic rather than heuristic, suggesting that they are unable to connect with the children at their level. For example, the playgroup assistant asks the children: “is it frying in the pan”. Some crying and laughter follows this suggestion, meaning that the children did not accept or follow on from this idea. The children are clearly absorbed in their play and do not appreciate such interruptions because they do not conform to their agendas.
The playground assistant is highly successful in displaying power whilst also being friendly and approachable. She makes suggestions and gives justification for most of her imperatives so she does not give an impression of being extremely strict, e.g. “you’ve got to roll it like this Jordan (2.0) so that it’s really thin”. The register is mainly very informal, but it is still obvious that the playground assistant has the most power in the room, perhaps even more than the parents, because he/she is the only one who uses imperatives and really engages with the children. He/she is the one who asks the questions and gives the children options such as “does anyone want to do an elephant shape?” In fact, one could deduce that the assistant has actually earned the power in the situation by listening in on the game and trying to involve herself with the imaginary world, whereas the parent struggles to do this and thinks only of the behaviour of his/her children. The overlapping and interruptions of the text only occur to the caregivers’ expense, suggesting that the children have the underlying power because they can create more havoc and easily outnumber the adults.

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