Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the “real world” is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. . . We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation
Language is a species specific behavior exclusively a human phenomenon. B.L. Whorf who takes a cultural relativistic approach to define the role of native language asserts that social and cultural patterns of a society determine the language styles. He further states that perceptions of the real world are largely shaped by language and consequently that ‘‘The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds.”
Jean Piaget extends this point of view still further by suggesting that language is the means by which thought is socialized and, through socialization, made logical.
It is felt that native language is the single most important influence upon the development of our thought processes and perceptions of the world, and different linguistic systems lead inevitably to different ways of thinking.
Language acquisition is a social necessity and a fundamental factor in the growth of individuality. Our native language enables us to express our needs, desires and emotions to significant persons in our environment. Dr. W. Penfield in his famous book Speech and Brain Mechanisms points out that the child’s brain has a specialized capacity for learning languages a capacity that decreases with the passage of years. He argues that during the first few years of a child’s life, his brain develops ‘language units,” complex neuronal records of what he hears and repeats. These units interconnect with other nerve cells concerned with motor activity, thinking and cognition. In other words, it is believed that children have a biological predisposition for language learning and process of language acquisition takes place through maturation and learning. Further support to Penfield’s ideas comes from the works of Dr. Lambert of McGill University, Montreal.
Dr. Lambert and his associates have found that the children with the most favorable attitude towards their own ethnic group experience the least amount of difficulty in learning the language of their parents. Hence the attitudinal variable and identification are significant in language learning.
The above discussion leads us to formulate the following major points about language learning.
- Child’s brain is specialized to the task of language learning. This specialization begins to fall off after the age of nine.
- Direct method of language learning is the correct method. It is based on the procedure by which the child can develop socio historical sense by showing identification with a significant person in his environment.
- The. Translation method of language learning involves a new neurophysiological process and hence causes interference.
- Social attitudes, identification factors and process of modeling are deeply involved in learning and ethnic language.
Overview of Theoretical Positions on Language Development. Broadly speaking there are four theoretical positions on language development.
- Cultural Relativist — Determinist
- Performationist Predeterminist
According to the behaviorist point of view, child learns what he is taught. Language is acquired through selective reinforcement of natural babbling and shaping of vocal behaviour through operant conditioning. Some sounds die because they are not reinforced, thereby creating blind spots.
Cultural Relativist — Determinist
According to CRD point of view language is acquired as a social necessity and its acquisition parallels the development of thinking and logic in children. Language 1s a conceptual system which produces a specific world view (reality) peculiar to that language. Language does not have to be taught but as a species specific behavior, it emerges in response to social needs.
Interactionists think that language is acquired because the child is predisposed to learn it through the ongoing development of intellectual systems. Its acquisition is not dependent on training. Information received by others is adapted by built-in genetic language learning mechanism and integrated into the cognition of the child.
Performationist — Predeterminist
According to Performationist Predeterminist point of view the child scans linguistic environment and integrates formal universals (grammatical categories). It is done by associating sounds and meanings in a particular way.
Dr. Frank Smith tries to summarize the above mentioned points of view while discussing linguistic relativity hypothesis. He feels that the children do not live in the same world, but in individual worlds structured by their language habits. Since the language reflects cognitive structures it becomes a distillation of cultural experiences and the means by which this experience is transmitted from one generation to another.
A consequence of this cultural transmission through language is that the extent that children and adults differ in their language they are likely to organize their experiences differently and perceive the world in different ways.
Aldous Huxley in his forward for Dr. Ghose’s famous book Mystics and Society (1968, p. 1) takes a different but very original point of view. He states:
Every culture is rooted in a language. No speech, no culture without an instrument of symbolic expression and communication, we should be Yahoos, lacking the rudiments of civilization. The universe inhabited by cultured human beings is largely homemade. It is a product of what Indian Philosophy calls Nama-Rupa name and form language is a device for denaturing Nature and so making it comprehensible for human mind. The enormous mystery of existence, the primordial datum of an unbroken psychophysical continuity, is chopped up by the symbol making mind into convenient fragments, to which verbal! Labels are attached. The labels and their logical (or illogical) patterning are projected into the outside world, which is then seen as a storehouse of separate, clearly defined and nicely catalogued things. Our names have created forms ‘out their’, each of which is an embodied illustration of some culture hallowed abstraction.
In other words, language chops off the psychophysical continuity of the child’s environment and conditions him to a culture and speaker of its language. Once conditioned he develops a cognitive style which generates in him a linear level of consciousness pertaining to his environment. If that is so, children who do not learn Panjabi will not develop linear consciousness about Sikh culture. Their Nama Rupa will be Canadian. Their ‘‘realities’’ will be different from the realities of their parents who speak Panjabi a language shaped by Panjabi culture. These children will have Panjabi genes with Canadian “realities” to live ambivalent lives in a materialistic, Maya oriented, narcissistic world.
What Parents or Significant Individuals Can Do?
We may find it difficult to teach children Panjabi to the extent that their conditioning be the same as ours. Living and operating at the same level of linear culturally conditioned consciousness might help us to feel that we have successfully transmitted our cultural heritage (or conditioning) to our children. But Aldous Huxley suggests that both the parents (with their Panjabi realities) and children (with their North American realities) might like to transcendent to a higher common reality which is beyond Nama-Rupa. He comments ‘From the Christian ‘prayer of simple regard’ to the zenkoan from Wordsworth’s ‘wise passiveness’ to Krishna murtis ‘alert passivity’ and ‘awareness without judgment or comparison’, all yoga’s have a single purpose to help the individual to bypass his conditioning as a heir to a culture and the speaker of a language. Mental silence blessedly uncreates the universe superimposed upon immediate experience by our memories of words and traditional notions. Mystics are persons who have become acutely aware of the necessity for this kind of deconditioning. Intuitively they know the essential ambivalence of language and culture, know that complete humanity and spiritual progress are possible only for those who have seen through their culture to be able to select from it those elements which make for charity and intelligence, and to reject all the rest.”
(Mystic and Society, 1968, p. 10)
Exceptional parents with exceptional motivations will find their way. Some suggestions dealing with teaching of language through modeling and identification have stood the test of empirical investigation. In North American settings we may also try the following:
- All young children should be taught the history of their culture in whatever language they can comprehend. They should be taught the relationship between reality and language. Also they should be made aware of indispensable use and fatal abuses of Any language.
- A child who knows that there have been hundreds of different cultures, and that each culture regards itself as the best, will not be inclined to take boastings of his own culture too seriously. Similarly a child who has come to understand that labels are not identical with things they are attached to, that words can be dangerous, will probably be cautious in speech and on his guard against the wiles of closed minded single tracked preachers.
Every child who is educated in the verbal level for language competencies should be provided with appropriate nonverbal training. Sikh temples and other places of worship provide tremendous opportunities where such training can be imparted in mental silence, wise passiveness and choice less attention.
Training in sensitivity, awareness, and “other kinds of seeing’? Should be our goal. We should help the children to see the world as beauty, as mysterious, and as unity. It is a known fact that other kinds of seeing are always there, parted from normal waking consciousness. Let the children learn Panjabi as a part of our input to waking consciousness but attempts should be made to supplement this learning with appropriate nonverbal training curriculum and methodology of which was so subtly built into Sikh ceremonies, by the Great Mystics (Gurus) of Sikh religion.
Article extracted from this publication >> April 5, 1985