Research Sheds Fresh Light on Children’s Early Social Interaction
Written by: Michael A. Forrester
How Children Acquire Language
Michael A. Forrester, the author of Early Social Interaction, explains the process of researching childhood language development by studying his daughter.
It is of course a truism that young children need to acquire a range of competencies as they learn how to engage in everyday interaction with those around them. However, understanding exactly how they finally become ‘languaged’, to use an odd phrase deliberately, turns out to be pretty difficult to examine in detail. In my recently published book, Early Social Interaction: A Case Comparison of Developmental Pragmatics and Psychoanalytic Theory, I’ve managed to shed fresh light on the significance of various forms of parent-child interaction during the first few years (especially between the end of the first year and into the fourth). In what now strikes me as an impossible project, I managed to persuade my family to let me video-record the everyday life (particularly meal-times – when children tend to stay in the one place) of my youngest daughter Ella. Being both somewhat obsessive and fantasizing that I was following on the heels of Jean Piaget, Roger Brown and other developmental psychologists who studied their own children these frequent recordings taken over a lengthy period formed a living record of the mundane, the prosaic and the often-rarely noticed moments of ‘doing being ordinary’. Using the methodology of conversation analysis, I was then able to examine in detail various aspects of Ella’s life and how she acquired those everyday practices that form the basis of who we become, ‘encultured’ humans. I must say, it takes a kind of curious and determined focus to be willing to use a methodology where it typically takes four hours to transcribe in detail one minute of everyday interaction. Still, all I can say is that it was worth it!
What is significant about learning how to talk is not only about a child learning all the relevant social actions but also learning how to monitor their own and other people’s feelings
Amongst other things, the recordings reveal that learning how to answer questions appropriately rests on children recognising that, as they get older, other people increasingly expect more appropriate answers. Furthermore, alongside learning all about the rules and conventions we have to use so as simply to be able to take part in conversation, the recordings showed that a child also learns what cannot be said: what they shouldn’t say or do. As the discursive psychologists Mike Billig has commented, when you learn to talk you also learn how to repress!
For me, it would seem that what is significant about learning how to talk is not only about a child learning all the relevant social actions (the doing of conversation) but also learning how to monitor their own and other people’s feelings (displays of emotion). I can only say it has been remarkably rewarding to have conducted a study of this process and understanding the interactions involved. Needless to say, having to spend many many hours transcribing video-recordings and then finally being able to illuminate the subtle nature of parent-child interaction, reveals many things, not only about the child’s development, but also about your own parenting – which is sometimes a very sobering experience.