Systemic Approaches to Child Language Development

Peter Fries

The following is a (partially edited) response by Peter Fries to a student requesting information on "Systemic Approaches to Child Language Development".

There are a number of people who are working on various aspects of language development in children. One person who is doing very interesting work is Clare Painter. She has a book called *Into the Mother Tongue* published by Pinter (1984), and another text book called Learning the Mother Tongue which is not available from Oxford (1989). That is, Oxford CLAIM they are publishing it, but if you write them and ask for it, they won't have it. This book was originally published by Deakin University in 1985 and is probably available from Deakin.

I know that a number of other people in Australia are working or have worked on language development, but I don't know who. I suggest that you write to Clare [[]] and see whether she can point you to any good bibliographies on SFG and child language. Hasan and Martin published a book with Ablex in about 1989 that deals with child language development. Also, if you are looking at older children Christine Pappas [[]] and Beverly Cox (BECOX@VM.CC.PURDUE.EDU) have used SFG concepts to explore language development of school-aged children.

Ruqaiya Hasan (with Carmel Cloran ( have done interesting work in a project studying semantic variation related to social class, and the development of 'logical' arguments in children (through social interaction). [[See list of references attached]] She has been studying interactions involving mother child dyads (half of her dyads were middle class (called HAP), half were working class (called LAP). In some of the studies, she compared the meanings expressed in mother -- child interactions in roughly similar contexts. E.g. mother caring for child as in giving child a bath. Notice she does NOT say that all these interactions encode similar contextual configurations or genres or registers. Rather she uses a term that is something like 'material situational context' (I can never remember the term exactly and I don't have time to actually look her term up to give it to you exactly (sorry)) She avoids the terms contextual configuration, genre, or register because it is clear that the participants in these activities encoded *different relations and activities* through their language. Note that while contextual configuration includes topic and the general nature of the activity, it also includes tenor relations etc. The dyads she studied typically encoded at least different tenor relations in the interactions she studied. She found three variables that accounted for/correlated with the differences she found: (a) social class of the mother child dyad, (b) sex of the child, and (c) w hether the child was first born or there were older siblings.

A related topic is the role of language in creating relevant context, constructing meanings, and for its influence on thought. SFG people seem to be adopting the term 'construe' for that relation. Look at recent work of Halliday and of Christian Matthiessen for that notion. (For example, they are at present working on a book called Construing Experience Through Meaning:A Language-based Approach to Cognition.) As you can see from the list of topics at the beginning of this description and the title of the Halliday and Matthiessen book, systemicists are getting into neo-whorfianism.

About your question re non-middle class interactions between mother and child, and how SFG would account for children learning in those situations, I can't give a definitive answer, since (a) my major focus is on English grammar/text analysis, and (b) I know very little about child language. However, let me sketch in the major dimensions of what I see. First, since SFG is a socially oriented theory, we take as given that in order to learn language, children must engage with language in socially situated contexts, for some purpose. Typically in theory and in practice, we systemicists have talked about dyadic relations. That is two individuals paying attention to each other and interacting with each other, in part through the medium of language. Your question seems to imply that we are saying that that is the only possible relevant context for language learning. Clearly it is not the only relevant context. Rather it is one that is very obviously relevant to language learning, is prevalent in the interactions we have examined, and therefore is important and (relatively) easy to deal with. If we look at the range of possible types of interactions, we can see the dyad as one possible situation, but other types of interactions could involve one person interacting with a group of others as a sort of audience, or one group of individuals interacting directly while others observe, and in this last situation one could make a distinction between intended observers vs. unintended observers. (Certainly these contexts don't exhaust the possible sorts of interactions.) Now I find it hard to believe that a community of people would have within it members who never take part in *any* interaction. If we are talking about children, who takes care of them? Who feeds them? Who cleans them? etc. Of course, language does not necessarily have to accompany these interactions, but the children *must* be integrated into the community in some way. The children must learn the norms of behavior of the community and the values of the community in some way, and this process of learning must begin virtually immediately at birth. I would claim that this integration into the society at large becomes 'a way in' for the children to learn language, since it makes the content of what is said predictable. The language is made, to some extent, redundant on the situation in which it is encountered. (This is true, whether the children are being addressed or are simply observing others interact.) Notice that I am treating interactions engaged in by members of a community as a kind of semiotic which brings up (I am tempt ed to say 'determines', but this is usually interpreted in too strong a way i.e. as implying a deterministic model.) relevant meanings, and in which relevant meanings are created by the participants. I see this last point as absolutely critical for an explanation of how children begin to learn language. Chomsky's point that children need to know what is significant *before* they learn language is absolutely spot on. (Note that this is also true in all the major decipherments of ancient scripts --that is the decipherments were made *after* the scholars determined roughly what the texts must have meant -- and in second language learning as well.) I only disagree about *how* children know what is significant. Chomsky ignores the meaningful nature of social interaction and resorts to positing a genetically based language faculty. I think we can gain much of the same effect for our theory by looking at the jointly constructed focus of attention gained through interaction. Now, of course it is much easier to see that jointly constructed focus of attention and its relevance to language learning if the people we are examining constitute a dyad of two people interacting directly with one another. However, it seems to me that even in extreme cases where we have, say two people interacting while a third [the child] acts as unintended observer, that we can still talk about a jointly(?) constructed focus of attention.

However, describing such a situation raises with a number of issues: (a) if the child is never part of an interacting dyad, how does the child observer become sensitive to the jointly constructed focus of attention of the primary interactants that the child is observing? (b) What sorts of interactions does the child observe? (c) Does the child observer take part directly in such interactions an any way? Other issues should be raised about language learning in such a culture, but I hope you can see the direction I am going with these questions. In short if I were to investigate language development in such a culture, I would begin by trying to locate interactions in which the children are involved (if only as observers) which are contextually situated in such a way as to provide the children with a way to predict the relevant meanings of the language used. I don't know of any linguistic anthropology done which directly calls itself systemic functional. Perhaps that is because SFG is a theory of language not of culture. (True, it is a socially-based theory, yet it was developed by linguists for linguistic purposes.) In a more positive vein, people like John Regan at Claremont College (California), and Nick Colby at University of California -- Irvine have been influenced by Halliday (and Lamb and Pike) in their anthropology.


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