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Communication problems of deprived children

Richard van der Ross

I intend in this paper to say a few things about a matter which is so ordinary, so everyday, that it has escaped people’s attention for a very long time. But it is one of the features of our times that we tend to overlook the everyday, and to regard it as if it is not important. Indeed, we have perhaps too long taken this attitude in regard to children! Because they are small, and because they always seem to be there, regardless of how one treats them, we have tended to take the attitude that somehow they will get over this bothersome stage of life, and then enter the really “important” stage of adulthood. Fortunately, we are now coming more and more, in South Africa as well, to realise that small people, children, are important, not in spite of their being small, but precisely because of it. And we are coming to realise that time, energy and money spent on small people are not wasted.

But today I wish to narrow the focus to a particular aspect of child development, that is to language, and still more to the language development of deprived children.

Who are deprived children? Children can be deprived in many ways. They can be deprived of good nourishment, of health, of social interaction — with other children or with adults, of love and affection, of play facilities, and so on. But for the present I shall speak of the deprived child as one who does not enjoy the type of experiences which will enable him to derive the greatest benefit from the environment in which he lives and grows up, including the primary and high school. I shall also take into account your special problems as people involved with institutionalised children.

Now, here I must at once admit to some inadequacy, as I can only guess at the kind of language deprivation from which children in institutions might suffer. I would value your opinions; in any event I put forward some ideas in the hope that they will draw out your reactions.

The relatively small amount of research that has been done on language, has compared children from middle-class homes with children from lower-class or working-class homes, these latter being regarded as “deprived.” The basic assumption which I shall be making is that in some ways the institutionalised child may be equated with the deprived or ‘lower class’ child. I trust that this will not offend you, and as consolation I must point out that deprivation is not only found in poverty areas; indeed many a so-called “middle class” child is deprived in very many ways. In studying the language of deprived children, many researchers have paid attention to the form of language (English, in this case) spoken by black children, i.e., Negro children in America, or black immigrants (West Indians) in Britain. These children speak a form of English sufficiently distinct to be recognised, and it is called Black English (BE) as against Standard English (SE). Here are some examples of what these children say:

 He fast in everything he do (instead of he is fast ... does)
You out the game (You are out of the game)
They not caught (They were not caught)

Now, you will probably react to this by saying that it is just bad or ungrammatical speech. But is it? Or is it in fact a new dialect? Are we entitled to call it bad? Judged by the standards of SE, it probably is bad; but are we correct in applying those standards? Here are a few more examples:

He pick me up yesterday. (He picked me up ...)

The Hawaiian Creoles, whose language has no -ed ending, will say:

He went pick me up yesterday.
Where he went?

Black English has a special significance for us in South Africa, for surely the Afrikaans language is nothing but a dialectical derivative from Dutch and other languages? There have been deviations in many ways, and the Hollander would be perplexed — if not offended — to hear such grammatical forms as the double negative (Ek is nie seker nie) or “foreign” conjugations as Ek is, ons is, or words such as baie or piesang. So now that Afrikaans has developed from ‘n kombuistool to a respectable language, it should not be too difficult for us to appreciate how these changes take place, nor should we find it hard to accept the idea of other standards of language without applying the words “good” and “bad.” Why is it that people have delved into a study of Black English? One reason is that they have come to realise (a) that it exists, (b) that it is different from Standard English (SE), (c) that schools, commerce and respectable middle-class institutions use SE and not BE, (d) that SE is the norm against which BE and the users of BE are judged.

Now this is bad enough as we consider that, arising from the past point, it means that Black people are judged to be “worse than” Whites, so that they are further discriminated against when it comes to job opportunities, housing and so on. But it becomes worse, as we realise that this has a circular effect. For, because the Blacks speak this different language, they also risk becoming inhibited in their communication with middle-class people. And, because the school is a middle class institution, using middle-class standards especially of language, this inhibits the child in school.

Let us take a case in point, and this type ofcase is far more the rule than it is the exception in a city like Cape Town today. A very large percentage of our Coloured children are working-class children from the sub- economic townships. The language which they speak and hear is not the polished, sophisticated language heard in other areas, It is certainly not the language of the neat, prim teacher in Sub A who does her best to speak “suiwer Afrikaans.” When, for instance, little Karel says to Jabaar: ‘Maak toegie dee’ teacher is likely to intervene and to say ‘Nee, jy meet so: Meek die deur toe’. Now, this is only one instance, but a it goes on and on, two things are likely to happen. First, little Karel is likely to feel that if his speech is always wrong, he’d better keep quiet and not speak when teacher is listening. Second, Karel begins to wonder about the speech of his own mother, father, family and friends, who all say Maak toegie dee, and who seem to manage all right. Are all his own people at home wrong? Are they inferior people?

There is further danger, that Karel will, in his efforts to please teacher (if he still tries) or to conform to “school speech,” will make himself quite ridiculous and further widen the school-home gap. Who has not, for instance, heard earnest, serious-faced Sub A’s and B’s read about “Die hoois met die mooi t0oin?” And the pity of it is that teacher will accept this, but reject the more work-a-day, better understood hys and tyn. One wonders what Langenhoven would have said!

Now, I do not wish to use this paper to advocate any particular policy in relation to Black English overseas, or Brown English at home. I merely wished to do two things. First, to make you aware of the type of language problems with which some researchers are concerned (if you were not already so aware), in order to “loosen up” some of your ideas about language. Second, to indicate some of the psychological effects on children when their own language code, i.e., their own way of speaking the language, happens not to coincide with the language code of school, the teachers, the other adults whom the children meet outside of their immediate home circles.

This leads us on to the general question of communication. It used to be felt that children from deprived or lower-class backgrounds had poor communication skills, especially poor linguistic communication. They had smaller vocabularies, and these vocabularies, naturally, were able to describe, verbally, a smaller range of experiences than were the fuller vocabularies of children from middle-class homes. The following quotation bears out this view:

“Research has documented the status of culturally deprived children in language development with regard to prerequisite skills, speech developmont, extent of vocabulary, and grammatical usage.

Adequate auditory and visual discrimination are necessary for successful speech development and for learning to read. Children from lower class homes have been found to be weak in auditory discrimination and visual discrimination at the beginning of school. The range of oral vocabulary possessed by lower and middle-class pupils has also been found to differ. In particular, lower-class children lack abstract language words for categories, class names, and non-concrete ideas.

To learn words children must try them out in new situations and receive correction and extension of their vocabulary and ideas. The language deficiencies of deprived children are probably due to the ways in which language is used in the home and to the amount of practice children have in using language in the home.

The 1niddle-class family is more likely to make use of language in an elaborate way: this includes using language to extend ideas, feelings, and individual interpretations. Language is usually accurate grammatically and allows for many ways of expressing oneself. Spoken language is the most important means of communication in the middle class family, and children are encouraged to speak and are corrected and reinforced in their language learning.

In the deprived home, language usage is more limited. Much communication is through gestures and other non-verbal means. When language is used, it is likely to be terse and not necessarily grammatically correct. In any case, it is likely to be restricted in the number of grammatical forms which are utilised. Thus, the deprived child enters school inadequately prepared for the typical language tasks of the first grade. The greatest handicap seems to be a lack of familiarity with the speech used by teachers and insufficient practice in attending to prolonged speech sequences.

In the long run, the language which the deprived child has learned at home is likely to be inadequate as an aid and tool in conceptualisation. Furthermore, language serves as a means of social distinctions which can limit opportunities for mobility.”

— Benjamin Bloom, (Ed.), Compensatory Education for Cultural Deprivation, pp.70-7 1.

But this type of viewpoint could lead to wrong deductions and practices. It could, for instance, lead people to say that if this is so, we must at all costs teach the lower class child to speak like the middle-class child, then other differences will disappear. And, if this is done, that is, if we try to graft on the lower-class child a form of speech which is artificial to him, leaving the rest of his life-style undisturbed, we could produce a very confused personality. Fortunately, language research has more to tell us. It tells us, for instance, that we must take another look at the concept of communication. And when we do this, we ask: Does the above quotation mean that lower-class children cannot communicate with one another? And the answer is clearly, No. The children of the working-class can and do communicate with one another. They do get their ideas across. They understand one another, and they can arouse a wide range of thoughts and emotions in one another. This, surely, is communication?

But we still do not get away from certain observed facts which must disturb the educator. Why is it that the children of the working-class appear to be so much quieter, so much more withdrawn, so much more reluctant to talk, so much less verbal than middle-class children? You may have noticed this as between one child and another. You visit in one home, and the children flock out and talk to you; you visit in another and they disappear, peeping at you shyly from around corners. You may have heard how people who have visited friends or relatives overseas have come back with the comment: ‘Their children speak so much more than ours!’ Sometimes they even draw the invalid conclusion: the children over there are so much more intelligent than ours! The point to remember is that the type of communication which is being discussed in these cases is communication between child and adult, not between child and child. As soon as the lower-class child is in the company of an adult from what he considers to be a higher prestige group, he tends to “shut up” like the proverbial clam. Among his peers, it is another matter. Don’t we all know the case of the teacher who despairs of getting his pupils to ‘speak spontaneously’, and who admonishes them for making so much noise ‘when his back is turned?’ And how many Inspectors of Education have not been turned grey by fruitless attempts to elicit conversation with High School pupils after these have recited their dutifully memorised ‘topics’?

If the kind of suggestion that I make above is valid, it points to the need for us to do something urgently. For we cannot get away from the fact that our schools and our society are run in a particular way, and that this way tends to impose the middle-class norm on vast masses of working-class children. One of the unhappy results of this imposition is that it induces a high degree of bewilderment and despondency in the children, which in turn is a significant factor in producing the high failure rate in school, so much higher in the lower-class than in the middle-class. I want to make another statement, relevant to the present occasion. If the assumptions above, with regard to child-adult communication are correct, we could expect them also to hold true in child care institutions. Indeed, we could expect that the children brought up in institutions would be still more withdrawn, still more “shy”, still less verbal in the company of adults, as they presumably meet many fewer adults than do non-institutionalised children, and they meet them on a different social-filial-economic basis.

What to do?
Now that we have explored the field of language briefly, we may be in a position to answer the very practical question: What do we do about it? How, in other words, do we set about developing the communication of children in deprived situations, and particularly in institutions, in respect of language. For the sake of brevity, I shall set down a few guidelines always remembering that these are very tentative.

1. Create as many opportunities as you can for the children to use speech. Cazden et al, say that children use language for self-aggrandisement, for explication and for aesthetic pleasure.

a) For self-aggrandisement: They like to ‘score points’ off one another, to be important. In this regard, the most language is produced when there is no one present of superior status: in other words, when nothing the child says can be held against him.

b) For explication: Children try to puzzle out something, such as: How does a piece of machinery work? or: How do we bake a cake? Again, they talk more and more fluently if they talk among themselves.

c) For aesthetic pleasure: Sometimes they just babble away or they invent or repeat rhymes. Some of these rhymes (with actions) can be extremely complex.

2. Note that the talk and communication is mainly in informal situations. The children learn to talk when talking among themselves, and not when being taught to talk by teacher. “By and large”, says Cazden, “children do not learn language from their teachers. Most children come to school, even to pre-school, with basic knowledge of the grammar of their native language”

3. This means a re-appraisal on the part of the teacher of her role. She should learn to keep in the background more, keep quiet more often, and not get upset at the ‘talking away’ between children engaged in a matter in which they are interested. In other words, the old school-room order: Stop talking! should be discontinued; or it should apply to the teacher rather than to the pupils!

4. Be careful about “correcting” a child. This does not mean never correct him, but it does mean that the adult should not so dampen the child’s ardour and enthusiasm that he lapses into silence. Sometimes plain courtesy should be observed. After all, if an adult should stop me in the street and ask me: How late is it? I would not correct his grammar — why then should I do it to a child? But lest one be accused of neglecting one’s duty and of encouraging sloppy speech, I hasten to add that there are ways of exercising a corrective influence without being too negative. Thus, if a child were to ask: How late is it? One might reply: Oh, you want to know the time? It is eleven o’clock! Or, to another child: ]ohnny, Jack asks: What is the time’? Can you tell him what the time is?

5. Avoid at all times any suggestion that “bad” speech, i.e., ungrammatical speech by SE standards, is a sign of stupidity. The same applies to dialectic peculiarities; one would hardly have accused General Smuts of stupidity because he spoke with a Malmesbury accent! In other words, never ridicule a child because of his speech. (One should, of course, never ridicule a child for any reason!)

6. In regard to child-adult speech, remember that It is more likely to develop in an atmosphere where a warm, friendly and trustful relationship exists between the child and the adult. Whilst I am sure that you who deal with children in institutions try to engender such an atmosphere at all times, it should be regarded as especially important in regard to all forms of communication. (Have you ever been in court and watched the accused in the dock? Have you been struck by their general lack of verbal communication? Is not this directly related to the lack of warmth, friendliness and trust?)

 7. A word about “rude language” and obscenities. Do remember that these are extremely relative value-judgements. A child may get a clip on the ear for using a word which is regarded as “creative” when used by a leading poet. Near my office window at school there is a black telephone-post. A short while ago a little boy, probably Sub B or so, walked up to the pole with a piece of chalk, and wrote a “rude” four-letter Afrikaans word on it. He repeated this gravely and carefully five or six times, pocketed his chalk, and solemnly went on his way. I watched him, and thought hard. Had I just seen a rude boy, with a dirty mind, who should be punished? Or had I seen a budding scribe with a message for the world, using the means at his disposal to spread the message. But look what he wrote? you ask. Yes, but where this boy lives, this rude word is seen all over, it is part of the essential graffiti of the township. Small as he is, it is the one word he sees posted up all over. It is probably more to his credit than otherwise that he has noticed it and learnt to spell it. And if we have any objection, should our wrath be directed at this boy, or at the conditions in which he is growing up? You, who work in institutions, will probably come across this problem too. Turning the blind eye and the deaf ear are often the best answers. Probably the matter is not as bad as you think, but ifyou do have serious cases, a private talk with the child concerned, in an atmosphere of love and trust rather than of strict discipline and authority, will go a long way.

I seem to have covered a fairly wide spectrum of ideas in a short while, and such a procedure is necessarily unsatisfactory in some respects. As I said at the outset, this talk has not intended to be profound; rather has its purpose been to alert your minds to some of the issues current today among those who study communication skills and problems especially among the deprived. If it has succeeded in doing this, and if this might cause us to seek fresh understanding of our charges in a vital area of their development, it will have achieved its purpose.

Short reading list

Cazden, Courtney, B. (Ed.) Language in Early Childhood Education. National Association for the Education of Young Children, Washington, D.C.

Bloom, B.S., Davis, A., Hess, R. (1965). Compensatory Education for Cultural Deprivation. Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Inc., New York.

Cazden, C.B. (1972). Child Language and Education.  Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Inc., New York.

Ginsberg, H. (1972). The Myth ofthe Deprived Child. Prentice-Hall Inc., New Jersey.

Grotberg, E.H. (Ed.) Day Care: Resources for Decisions. Office of Economic Opportunity, Washington, D.C.

Houston, S.H. (1973). Black English. Article in Psychology Today, March.


This feature: Van der Ross, R. Communication problems of deprived children. Readings in Child and Youth Care for South African Students, 2. Cape Town. National Association of Child Workers. pp149-157.