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How Does Culture Affect the Language Development of a Child?

by Emma Wells

Children in all cultures are born with the capability for language acquisition, and acquire language in roughly the same way: by learning from and imitating the adults around them. Children are capable of learning any language; they will imitate the sounds and learn the vocabulary of adults, and experiment with syntax and grammar as they develop, until they can speak with fluency. While children around the world acquire language in the same way, environmental factors including culture, socio-economic status and parenting styles can influence the rate of language development in children.

Environmental Factors

A 2008 study done by Erika Hoff of Florida Atlantic University and published in the “International Journal of Behavioral Development” found that environmental factors play a major role in child language development. Children acquire language by listening to and interacting with the adults around them, and in cultures where adults do not speak to children, the children may acquire language at a later age. In all environments, the amount of speech children hear from adults, the grammatical complexity of that speech, the number of new vocabulary words, and the “informativeness of the contexts in which new vocabulary items are presented” influence child language development.

Baby Talk

When parents use baby talk with their children, it helps to reinforce child language acquisition by providing positive feedback for the child, according to the anthropology department of Palomar College. However, in some cultures, parents may choose to use baby talk long after it is useful, when children should be learning how to use the correct grammar and syntax instead of the incorrect version that results from child experimentation during acquisition. Parents should stop using baby talk with their children after age 6 at the latest. Baby talk and similar styles of language acquisition are similarities shared by all cultures.

Socioeconomics and Race

A 2009 study done by Elizabeth Pungello, et.al at the University of North Carolina appearing in "Developmental Psychology" found that children raised with more sensitive and positive parenting styles, rather than negative-intrusive parenting styles, had a higher rate of growth in language acquisition. This study was complicated by socioeconomic status and race, with European American children performing higher with language acquisition than African American children. Researchers concluded that the correlation between low socioeconomic status and race in the U.S. often led to higher rates of depression in African American mothers, which led to more negative parenting styles than those of affluent European Americans. Socioeconomic status also correlates with fewer literacy resources in the home and a lower rate of literacy among adults, so that children born into a family of low socioeconomic status tend to learn fewer vocabulary words before preschool than affluent children. Often, the difference in language acquisition between children is not about culture, but about socioeconomic status and the many factors associated with disempowerment.

Cross-Cultural Similarities

Erika Hoff’s study of children in China yielded very similar results to Pungello’s study in the United States, in that socioeconomic status played the largest role in environmental factors and language development. When affluence was relatively the same, there was very little difference between the language acquisition of Chinese children and Euro-American children, according to Hoff's research appearing in the 2008 edition of the "International Journal of Behavioral Development." Just as affluent European American parents speak to their children more often, with more diversity of vocabulary and complexity in sentence structure, affluent Chinese parents with higher rates of education did the same. The result was that in both countries, children from affluent families had higher rates of language development than children from families of low socioeconomic status, even when cultural factors were controlled, as they were in Hoff’s study of China.

About the Author

Emma Wells has been writing professionally since 2004. She is also a writing instructor, editor and former elementary school teacher. She has a Master's degree in writing and a Bachelor of Arts in English and anthropology. Her creative work has been published in several small literary magazines.

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