Language, Literacy, and Community

Patricia Baquedano-López. Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy. Editor: Nigel Hall, Joanne Larson, Jackie Marsh. Sage Publication. 2003.

Every group in society shares a system of norms, preferences and expectations that organize the linguistic structure of the group’s language. Children learn language (from sounds to words, to utterances, to larger discursive constructions) to express, convey, mediate, and manage action, emotions, and knowledge. Acquiring language is thus a process inextricably tied to local social, emotional, and cognitive experience. It entails learning the symbolic systems shared by members of one’s cultural group that are used to classify reality in the world. This semiotic property of language is foundational for understanding form-form and form-meaning relations that are constrained by the generative phonological, morphological, and syntactic principles of language. The task for children in their early childhood years is to learn the language spoken around them and learn the comportment that renders that language relevant and adequate across cultural activities. This is also part of the process of literacy development. Children must learn to develop interpretive skills mediated through language, that is, they learn to use existing knowledge in order to generate new knowledge. In this chapter I provide an overview of the work that has contributed to our understanding of the role of language in literacy development. I begin with a discussion of the social nature of language, addressing the implications for children’s acquisition and use of language in context. Next, I examine the relationship between language and literacy and the task of the child in using language to develop knowledge and expertise. I conclude with a discussion of the notion of ‘community,’ which has had a significant influence on recent research on language and early childhood literacy, especially in multicultural settings.

Language in its Social Context

For much of the latter part of the twentieth century, social theorists directed their attention to linguistic phenomena while seeking explanations of linguistic behaviour in social theory. The attention to the role of language in people’s engagement with the social world has led to our current appraisal of this period of inquiry as ‘the linguistic turn in social theory’ (see Fairclough, 1989: 3). This turn has also been interpreted as a response to a set of ‘oppositions,’ some of which were posited by Saussure (1966) in his Course in General Linguistics. Saussure had proposed two approaches to the study of language. One was the study of langue as the self-sufficient system of signs of a language, potentially available to all speakers of a language. The other was to study parole, or speech, which corresponds to the situated realization of that system of signs by a particular speaker. In this model, the expression of individual speech is only possible because there is a larger, more collective system that accounts for it. The relationship between langue and parole has shaped much of linguistic theory today, including such notions as how language works, and most relevant to this discussion, how language is acquired and used. While a focus on the structure of language is certainly necessary, we cannot disregard the relationship of this system to its speakers who are agential, culturally competent members who acquire language and use it for a number of socially relevant activities.

The distinction between these two aspects of language acquisition and use (langue and parole) has also been conceptualized as linguistic competence and performance (Chomsky, 1965). Competence refers to the knowledge of a language that speakers and hearers possess, and performance to the actual use of language in concrete situations. From this perspective, the tension between competence and performance lies in the speakers’ potentiality in generating an unlimited sequence of grammatically well-formed sentences. There are many advantages to these analytical dichotomies. For one, there is an immediate applicability of the model to the detailed description of the logic and structure of grammar. Indeed, a great number of grammars have been documented and the efforts in language preservation have been most important (cf Doggett, 1986; Celce-Murcia, 1991). Another area where these structural frameworks have had an impact is in the study of early language development. In Chomsky’s language model, children learning language in their communities demonstrate that the process of language acquisition is the result of the innate, and universal, knowledge of language. As children develop, they actively generate hypotheses about language rules that they test against whatever linguistic input is available to them (arguably, this input is limited given the great capacity for language). Children are the best examples of competence. They learn to produce language that is a representation, or rather an instantiation, of the larger system that their linguistic and cultural communities use. Children eventually become adults who use language in creative, generative ways, continuing to display competence. In a critique of this model, Bourdieu (1977) argued that the concept of ‘competence’ as the capacity to generate grammatically appropriate sentences misses a much larger point. Instead of just being competent at producing sentences, speakers are competent at producing sentences in socially appropriate ways. The point of departure in poststructuralist approaches to the study of language lies in its construction as an inherently social phenomenon (Habermas, 1984/1987; 1987), even when constructing language, and oneself as a member of a community, might be purely acts of identity affiliation (Anderson, 1991). The developing child is an intrinsic part of the social world, of a sociocultural milieu, and learns to reproduce language and culture. This growth and development is what Ochs (2002) has recently described as the interactive process of ‘becoming speakers of culture.’ Novice members of a community learn relevant interactional stances and roles while engaged in activity. Children learn to become competent members of their communities by attending to cultural expectations, making sense of the ways in which people around them think and act. Sometimes these stances are not necessarily explicitly taught to them, and children must, instead, learn to understand these stances from their own participation in activities with others.

Bourdieu’s notion of ‘habitus’ has been a useful concept to explain the ways in which children come to learn the practices and behaviours that are expected of them. ‘Habitus’ refers to the set of dispositions that are inculcated and socially structured. These dispositions are also generative, transposable, and durable (Bourdieu, 1977: 82). They are the result of early socialization practices (see also Bernstein, 1970) and reflect the social conditions within which they were acquired. Everyday linguistic exchanges are also situated encounters, so that each linguistic interaction bears the traces of the social structure that constitutes it (Bourdieu, 1977; Derrida, 1974/1976). Speakers use language, and in effect exchange language, in the ‘linguistic marketplace’ where utterances—not just what is said but how it is said—accrue value. Such linguistic exchanges are not only the result of power; they also reflect relations of power (also Foucault, 1977). This point is the subject of current critical approaches to literacy and pedagogy that have contributed to understanding the unequal acquisition of literacy and knowledge in children, starting with their first contact with formal education (Luke, 1994; Muspratt et al., 1997). Language, as a form of capital, leverages or accentuates differing relations of power, and knowledge can become more a matter of reproduction of existing relations of power than actual competence. Often, to be learned is to be a member and participant of a community of powerful experts and scientists (Lyotard, 1984). These ideas on the power of language and knowledge are extremely relevant to the study of young children acquiring language and literacy. The child learning language engages the social relations and the sociohistorical endowment that comes with using language, that is, its discourses. The acquisition of a range of discourses, speech registers, and genres is thus central to child language development in society (see Gee, 1999, for distinctions of different levels of of ‘discourse’).

Young children develop language and literacy practices that extend their current capabilities to recreate roles and relationships, even to display appropriate registers, often with the use of available tools and technologies (Andersen, 1986; 1990; Clancy, 1986; Guillen, 2002; Lankshear and Knobel, 1997). An illustrative example is the study of three-and four-year-olds during spontaneous play with a telephone (Guillen, 2002). Children’s use of the appropriate speech genres and discourses is activated as they are also developing technological literacies. This is at the core of children’s learning: to accord registers to activities, stances to actions, and discourses to social reality. For literary critic Bakhtin (1981), language and discourse (as the sets of norms and preferences that relate language to context) are dialogic in that they invoke histories and social relations. Language is situated in social life; that is, words, phrases, sentences (or the more encompassing term ‘utterances’) include a past, present, and future orientation that is at once preconditioned and dynamic. Bakhtin speaks of the inherent diversity and heteroglossia in discourse, of the recognition of multiple experiences, speech genres, which are also bound to context. He argues that readers (and we can extrapolate to audiences and even interlocutors) have an active role in co-constructing meaning. Such co-constructions, however, need not be unproblematic or conflict free. Language is a highly contested ground. Across space and time, master narratives give rise to counter-narratives and to alternative discourses that try to break free from normalizing discourses of what constitutes experience, knowledge, and social reality (Anderson, 1991; Bhabha, 1990; Spivak, 1995; Fairclough, 1988; Luke, 1994; Lyotard, 1984). This last point helps explain why there has been concretization and commodification of knowledge and of its accompanying discourses that directly influence children’s language and literacy development and reproduce the status quo. A critique of this reproductive process is most evident in the fast growing number of analyses of policy, reform, pedagogical practice, curricula, and institutional accountability aimed towards a more equitable education (Apple, 1996; 2000; Macedo, 1994; Baker and Luke, 1991; McLaren, 1995; 1986/1999; Lankshear and McLaren, 1993; Giroux, 1983; 1992). The efforts to study language in its social context are useful to understand the contexts for development of young children’s language and might lead us to the improvement of both language and literacy learning experiences of children, especially of minority children, in multicultural settings.

Language and Culture

Discussion thus far has focused on language and the social world and the necessary understanding that children acquire language in social interaction; that is, they acquire knowledge that encodes a sociohistorical trajectory. Culture, like language, is an important conceptual tool for locating the study of the individual in the social world. Largely as a result of feminist critiques to canonical notions of culture and its method of analysis (Behar, 1995; Behar and Gordon, 1995; Pratt, 1986; Visweswaran, 1994) and the lens of the ‘native’ scientist turned back to the research community (Behar, 1995; Limón, 1991; Narayan, 1993; Rosaldo, 1989), the study of culture has shifted from something to be described, interpreted and explained, to a source of explanation in itself.

One of the earlier definitions of culture, more an effort to reconcile the conflicting views on culture in both sociology and anthropology at the time, underscores the interactional nature of cultural phenomena, the individual and the collectivity. Kroeber and Parsons write:

We suggest that it is useful to define the concept of culture for most usages more narrowly than has been generally the case in the American anthropological tradition, restricting its reference to transmitted and created content and patterns of values, ideas, and other symbolic-meaningful systems as factors in the shaping of human behavior and the artifacts produced through behavior. On the other hand, we suggest that the term society—or more generally, social system—be used to designate the specifically relational system of interaction among individuals and collectivities. (1958: 583, original emphasis)

As a contractual agreement across disciplinary fields, this definition tied together several important operating concepts of symbols and systems in a relational configuration. The matrix is still useful today. The interest in describing people’s behaviours and actions as members constituting society has ranged from an interpretivist (rather than objectivist) perspective in the study of culture (Geertz, 1973), to a more descriptive science highlighting the provisional and contingent nature of the social in the cultural (Rosaldo, 1989), to fiction and description (Visweswaran, 1994), to performance (Bauman and Briggs, 1990), and more recently to the description of the ways in which people live ‘culturally’ as they engage in everyday practice (Moll, 2000). Ethnography has become the method par excellence in the development of interpretive science, particularly through the method of ‘thick description.’ Linguists, anthropologists, and more recently educators, have since taken on the task of providing accounts of people’s (largely differing and conflicting) understandings of their linguistic participation in culturally defined activities, constituting the first efforts to tie language and communicative acts to the study of culture (Wentworth, 1980; also Gumperz, 1982).

The poststructuralist approaches to language and social theory discussed so far have had a significant influence on studies of language and literacy. In fact, several consequences for the study of children’s early language and literacy development stem from this conceptual shift. No longer perceived as cultural repositories and producers of language data, children’s development and use of language (a field known as developmental pragmatics: cf. Ochs and Schieffelin, 1979) began to be taken as the focus of cross-cultural and cross-linguistic studies. A wealth of research on children’s language development has continued to give prominence to the linguistic and the cultural in cognitive development (Cole, 1996; Gnc, 1999; Gopnik et al., 1999; Keenan, 1974; Miller, 1994; Miller et al., 1990; Nelson, 1989; 1996; Ochs, 1988; Ochs and Schieffelin, 1984; Rogoff, 1990; 1993; Saxe, 1994; Schieffelin, 1990). For the young child learning a language, as Ochs (2002) notes, becoming a speaker of culture means to learn to ascertain that there are multiple dimensions of meaning making that take place as children interact with their cultural environment and as they engage people and objects in their world. Scollon (2002), arguing along a similar line, underscores the significance of the interplay between the individual’s own development and use of language and her or his community’s developmental, ontological trajectories. From this we can conclude that children move within and across these trajectories. And in so doing, they actively construct their own history.

The centrality of language as a tool for socializing young members or novice members to the cultural and linguistic practices (and indeed the history) of a community has launched a new field of child language acquisition studies, language socialization, which involves as much socialization through language as socialization to use language (Schieffelin and Ochs, 1986). Drawing from poststructuralist approaches to the study of the individual in social activity, socialization refers to the lifespan process of becoming a competent member of society. This process presupposes interaction or joint activity between expert and novice members while engaged in culturally meaningful activity (Lave and Wenger, 1991). In such interactions, despite asymmetries in knowledge and power, socialization is always bidirectional in the sense that novices may also socialize experts just as experts socialize novices. Language, thus, mediates the socializing interactions between expert and novice members of a community. Socialization takes place through co-construction during moment-to-moment interaction and it is conditioned by responses, which involve uptake or ratification, challenge, or even reframing (similar to rekeying: see Goffman, 1974).

A number of studies of early childhood literacy development have illustrated the process of socialization (Fader, 2001; Heath, 1986; Phillips, 1983; Ochs, 1988; Ochs and Schieffelin, 1984; Duranti et al., 1995; Schieffelin, 1990; 2000; Pease-Alvarez and Vsquez, 1994). During socializing encounters between experts and novices, cultural norms, preferences, and expectations are socialized vis-à-vis the development of cognition; for example, in the ways one focuses and handles attention, engages in problem solving, or formulates hypothetical thinking, as well as the displays of emotional responses and the appropriate physical demeanour to such states. This perspective on socialization stands in stark contrast to earlier notions of learning where the novice is passive and the expert assumes an active role. This view resembles a process of transmission and not the dynamic process that language socialization tries to capture. Indeed, language socialization is a more integrative, systemic approach to language development and its study has proven to be far more comprehensive than the early oppositions of the past (langue-parole, competence-performance, teaching-learning, and individual-society). Instead, much of the thinking on how people learn and the role that language plays in it has moved to dialectic models that point to synthesis; one of these is activity theory or cultural-historical activity theory. This synthetic approach focuses in studying people’s tool-mediated collaborations in shared activity, taking as a starting point that language is a key mediational tool (Cole, 1996; Engestrrm et al., 1999; Lee and Smagorinsky, 2000; Gutiérrez et al., 2000; Vygotsky, 1978).

Language, Culture, and Knowledge: The Ties to Literacy

The notion of language as a tool for meaning making has implications for understanding literacy development and for children’s development of interpretive skills in interaction with others. Street (1984) has argued that to properly study literacy processes one must locate them in the interactions of individuals with other members of society and through the context of cultural practices. This link between context, language, and literacy development is further explained by Ochs: ‘Meaning is embedded in cultural conceptions of context, and in this respect the process of acquiring language is embedded in the process of socialization of knowledge’ (1988: 3). In earlier conceptualizations of knowledge, the role of language was constructed as ‘the universal medium’ for developing knowledge and understanding (Gadamer, 1975/2000: 389). A less known precursor of language and literacy studies, Gadamer points us to interpretation and knowledge in which language plays a central role. There are many examples from both experimental and longitudinal studies that illustrate the role of language in literacy development, from babies developing knowledge about the world to the development of emergent reading and writing skills (Ferreiro and Teberosky, 1983/1985; Ferreiro, 1986; Goodman 1984; 1986; Gopnik et al., 1999; Nelson, 1996; Scollon and Scollon, 1981/1989; Rogoff et al., 1993; Schieffelin and Cochran-Smith, 1984; Wells, 1985; Williams, 1991). In her case study of Santiago, a Spanish-speaking three-year-old child learning to read and write in Spanish, Ferreiro (1986) documents her extended interactions with Santiago in eliciting his perceptions of sound-letter correspondences while he was learning to write the names of people in his immediate social world. Santiago is seen as moving between many dimensions of knowledge construction: from more static sound-letter correspondences to more abstract symbolism. In another study of four-and five-year-olds’ awareness of print and book-handling knowledge and reading procedure, Goodman (1986) concludes that at an earlier age, children know that the printed page carries meaning (pictures, for younger children), but perhaps more telling in the findings she reports is the fact that children verbalize an awareness of the difficulty of the reading task and request help-regardless of actual competence. This suggests an interactional dimension that children learn to engage in the process of learning how to read and write. In a study of African-American middle-class children, Williams (1991) investigates the recounting of literacy experiences that mothers organize for their children, whom, she argues, serve as a way to socialize literacy values. During interactions at home, children are encouraged to talk about successful experiences in school and the church—two important literacy institutions for the children in this study (indeed, churches have been historically important sites for children’s literacy socialization). Through these activities, Williams argues, children are being socialized to value school and to see themselves as literate. Of significance, personal storytelling is used to promote literacy development in other contexts (or at least to develop an awareness of literacy). The affiliative, sense making nature of narrative activity was thus employed to begin to generate new knowledge from existing knowledge—a key process in literacy development.

Language and Community

The notion of ‘community,’ while widely used in linguistic and developmental research, needs to be seriously problematized. As Pratt (1987) notes of anthropological research, ‘community’ as a construct has dangerous homogenizing undertones. This assessment is equally applicable to much research in education. In an increasingly global society, where community can no longer be defined in terms of geographical boundaries, or of ethnic affiliation, or even of the languages or dialects of a language spoken in a particular locale (Hymes, 1974; Labov, 1973), community has to take on a more dynamic meaning. Indeed, the literacy development of children in multilingual societies and learning contexts often traverse the traditional fixed geopolitical, ethnic, cultural and linguistic boundaries (Fader, 2001; Garrett and Baquedano-López, 2002; Gonzlez, 2001; Gutiérrez et al., 1999; Vsquez et al., 1994). The dynamicity of community can best be captured by attending to the practices of members and activity as units of analysis. This focus on practice has led to increasing attention to the study of ‘communities of practice’ (Lave and Wenger, 1991). At its core, the model presupposes that all individuals of society participate in a myriad of communities of practice (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet, 1992; Garrett and Baquedano-López, 2002; Lave and Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998).

To define community in terms of collaborative and relational practices is to recognize the link between the individual and the group and the necessary relationship between tools and participants. It also entails recognizing that there is tension between individual and collaborative goals. Membership in a community of practice is characterized by the socialization of competencies by expert others, and is typified by mutual engagement and by a more dynamic and collaborative deployment of competence and performance in activity (Cole, 1996; Engestrm et al., 1999). The community of practice can be a productive, heterogeneous locale for understanding the changes of people’s participation over time, i.e. learning (Rogoff 1993), and the different participation structures that indicate movement from peripheral participation to more central participation (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Larson, 1995; de León, 1998). While the communities of practice model might be most useful in studying people engaged in small-scale, more or less established historical practice, it might prove to be too narrow to account for complex institutional settings, such as classrooms and schools, where unequal relations of power and the sociohistorical endowment of race, gender, and class are at play. It is important to also underscore that even participation in a community of practice is contingent on the ideologies that people and institutions hold about languages and their speakers (Woolard, 1998). Research on language, literacy, and community must account for different levels of interaction, as well as the ideologies underlying those interactions.

As literacy theorists, we are engaging rich and productive conceptual junctures. The field is healthy in its inter-disciplinariness. The lessons learned from the development of social theory, as we address such notions as language, literacy, culture and community, can help improve our practice in the pursuit of answers to the question of how well children can grow to be competent and successful members of the different communities in which they participate and of the many worlds that they are yet to know.