Leon’s Theory of Language Development

The learning process of language in children is shaped by the social phenomena that the child is immersed in, where these social phenomena be non-verbal or verbal dyadic or polyadic interactions between the child and others. Lourdes De Leon’s (1998) paper The Emergent Participant: Interactive Patterns in the Socialization of Tzotzil (Mayan) Infants demonstrates how different social activities that a child is immersed in reflect their development of language through the Tzotzil (Mayan) infant community, located in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico.

Leon successfully evidently shows that children are immersed into different social polyadic interactions even before they have learned the language allowing them to develop their own roles that reflect their language skills. The Tzotzil (Mayan) infant communities demonstrate how the children gain knowledge of their language by participating in “multiparty interactions” (León 1998, p.134) where these interactions are verbal or non-verbal. As the child develop knowledge about social identities of other participants, interactive goals of the activity, and how the structure of verbal and non-verbal communication is performed, the children are able occasionally form and assign their own roles in a social phenomenon called the addressee, embedded speaker, side participant, over hearer, and the eavesdropper. Leon proposes that children “emerge as social participants” (León 1998, p.134) further highlighting that even before learning the Tzotzil language, the Mayan children are immersed in the “multiparty interactions” demonstrating that the roles assigned to the children in polyadic interactions reflect the child’s development of language.

A child’s development in language does not depend on a minimum number of social phenomena that the child is able to participate in but it depends on the “dyadic address” between the child and the mother.  Dyadic interactions are the child’s main source of learning experience for language as the child spends the majority of their time with their mothers “eaves dropping” conversations. Leon’s studies of two early Tzotzil (Mayan) infants, named Mal and Mersi, were monitored and were observed to be immersed in dyadic, “close bodily interaction” (León 1998, p.151) with their parents from their birth. At a very young age the infants are mainly assigned with the role of the eaves dropper as the parent is the only speaker in the dyadic interaction. Rhetorical questions and eye level communication are observed to be used by the parent towards the child to achieve “conjoint attention and compliance” (León 1998, p.151).

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The infants are able to participate at the age of four months old and are assigned to the role of an over hearer or an implied participant in a dyadic interaction where words are “put into their mouths” by the parent. Similarly, these rhetorical questions are used by the parent to allow the child to participate in a conversation as an embedded speaker (Leon 1998, p.146). In Leon’s findings, the Mayan families “routinely” immerse the infants in social activities where the parent tells the infant to address other family members which in turn allows the child to develop an understanding of how communication is performed. By the age of eight months, the infants are able to communicate verbally and non-verbally with the parent and the dyadic interaction of “close bodily interaction” is transformed into “long distance verbal monitoring”. The “long distance verbal monitoring” is evident when Mersi makes a “guttural sound” towards the caregiver to indicate that she needed to urinate demonstrating a transformation from an eaves dropper to a “virtual speaker” (Leon 1998, p.139) in a dyadic interaction event. This “interactive pattern” of dyadic interactions relative to time with the parent and the infant is reflected through the results of the two Tzotzil (Mayan) infants’ language growth from being unable to speak to being able to communicate verbally and non-verbally with others.

Leon demonstrates that infants in society require minimal “conversational interaction” (Leon 1998, p.143) in the stages before transitioning from a baby to a child and can develop their language skills through non-verbal communication that are dyadic or polyadic during social phenomena such as recognizing faces and following movement. In the daily lives in the Tzotzil community of extended families, there are many “routine activities” such as greetings which encourage the infants to “participate” in the greeting as a third party. During the studies of the two Tzotzil (Mayan) infants, the four month old Mersi was able to participate in a short greeting event between her parent and a passerby where she was sharing the parent’s viewpoint by “rotating her head” as she stared at the “passing greeter” thus participating in the “routine activities” which demonstrates how the infant is identified as a side participant in the event. Rhetorical questions and motherese (Leon 1998, p.144) is used towards the infant by the parent to achieve “joint attention” (Leon 1998, p.144). From Leon’s studies, the “reply” that the Mayan infants give back towards the parent is a “child’s babbling” indicating that the infant has the role of an addressee in a “conversation” and has gained the slightest knowledge of how to communicate. This successfully demonstrates that children require minimal “conversational interaction” to develop language skills by participating in non-verbal interactions that are dyadic or polyadic.

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The studies of Lourdes De Leon’s (1998) paper The Emergent Participant: Interactive Patterns in the Socialization of Tzotzil (Mayan) Infants, Leon demonstrated how the learning process of language is reflected due to different social phenomena that infants are immersed in. These different social phenomena can be non-verbal or verbal dyadic or polyadic interactions enabling the child to take on different roles in an event despite having no knowledge of a specific language. However, dyadic interactions between mother and child which do not require speaking are the main sources of how an infant develop language and culture which is evident through the two monitored Mayan infants, Mal and Mersi.

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