“Ways with Words” by Shirley Brice Heath

The problem of the language development was traditionally one of the major concerns of linguists since the understanding of this process could provide a key to better understanding of the language itself and mechanisms of its formation and ongoing evolution and changes. In this respect, the book “Way with Words” written by Shirley Brice Heath is particularly noteworthy because the author of the book focused on the research of the problem of the language development in two distinct cultural environments. In fact, Shirley Brice Heath attempted to trace the interdependence between the cultural environment children grow up in and the development of their language competencies as well as the ways in which these competencies are developed. At the same time, the main focus of the author was the impact of the cultural environment of children on the language development. This problem is very significant, especially in the contemporary environment, because the modern society grows more and more diverse culturally. Therefore, the dependence of the language development on the cultural environment is very important for development of effective methods of teaching of the language in different cultural groups as well as in a multicultural environment. In this respect, it is necessary to underline the fact that Shirley Brice Heath’s basic concept implies that the cultural environment does matter in the process of the language development. To put it more precisely, in the beginning of her book she argues that the “place of the language in the cultural life of each social group is interdependent with the habits and values of behaving shared between members of that group” and, what is more, values are formed by family structures, religious groups, and concepts of childhood (Heath, 11). Hence, the book reveals this interdependence between the cultural environment and the language development and it is a significant contribution of the author in the development of the modern linguistic as well as anthropology.

Shirley Brice Heath researches two communities and she attempts to study how children living in these communities acquire their language competence and what strategies and methods adults are using to develop the language competence of their children. The author uses fictitious names for the two communities discussed in her book. These communities are Raodville and Trackton. In this respect, it is important to underline the fact that Shirley Brice Heath takes into consideration a complex socio-cultural environment of the children who are actually the subjects of the research. To put it more precisely, she researches two working class communities, i.e. communities occupying lower position in the social hierarchy, and she contrasts them to the Townspeople, which represent the middle class.

Moreover, Roadville and Trackton communities are rural communities which are apparently different from the Townspeople, who represent inhabitants of the urban area. In addition, it is necessary to take into consideration the fact that the Roadville is the white working class community, while Trackton is the black working class community.

In such a way, racial issues are also involved in the research which can help to reveal whether there is a difference in the language development of children living in white communities and black communities.

Obviously, such an attention of the author to socio-cultural and socioeconomic issues is very important because it reveals the extent to which these issues can affect the language development and it also reveals the ways in which socio-cultural and socioeconomic issues affect the development of the language competence. In such a way, the author broadens the view on the language development from a narrow, technical view on the language development as a process of development of specific speaking, writing and reading skills to the view on the process of the language development as a complex process affected by the cultural context in which the acquisition of basic language skills and competences occurs.

Thus, the author introduces readers into both communities. Initially, Shirley Brice Heath depicts in details the social environment where children grow up and develop their language competence. She discusses cultural norms and traditions of both communities, analyses the socioeconomic status of families of the children, who are subjects of her research, and schooling environment. In this respect, it is important to underline the attention of the author to the social environment of children outside their families and the life of children within the family and their relationships with members of their community and their families.

After that, the author focuses on the language development proper in both communities. On researching the language development in the Trackton community, Shirley Brice Heath lays emphasis on the distinguishable difference in the upbringing of boys and girls in the community. She argues that boys are favored over girls in the Trackton community and, thus, they are in a privileged position compared to girls. At the same time, practically from the moment of the birth a child becomes a part of the community and not the family only. In the result of her study, Shirley Brice Heath has identified three stages of children’s learning to carry on conversations between the ages of 1 and 2 in the Trackton community: repetition, repetition with variations, and participation. It is worth mentioning that children learn the language patterns and develop their language competence from older children.  In the Trackton community, “flexibility and adaptability are the most important characteristics of learning to be and to talk in Trackton” (Heath, 111).

As for the Roadville community, Shirley Brice Heath has revealed substantial differences in the language development of children growing up in this community. To put it more precisely, the author indicates to a more significant role of adults in the process of the language development. Adults in the Roadville community use babytalk with infants to develop their language but, as children grow, they tend to correct their children’s language. In such a way, the role of older children in the language development in the Roadville community is insignificant. The author arrives to the similar conclusion on analyzing the impact of the community on the language development. Shirley Brice Heath has revealed the fact that parents play the determinant role in the development of language skills of their children, while the role of community is secondary since children are mainly focused on their families and the distance between children and the community is maintained quite significant, especially at the early stages of their development. Thus, children in the Roadville community are viewed as members of the family above all. Hence, it is family that is the main source of the language patterns and source of knowledge of children about the language.

Mothers in the Roadville are extremely concerned with the preparation of their children to school and they view teaching their children the language competence as their major duty. It is worth mentioning that the acquisition of new words and development of the language skills occur in the form of play, which is a natural activity for children.

They amply use toys to improve their language competences. At the same time, repetition and memorization is key in home and social activities in which children develop their language skills.

In such a way, Shirley Brice Heath reveals a significant difference in the oral tradition of the Trackton and Roadville community. She draws the attention of readers to the fact that, in Roadville, story-telling emphasizes correctness, details and chronology, which are “reinforced in many of the community’s church-related practices and on other occasions when adults tell stories on themselves or each other” (135). The author argues that children, in their turn, imitate stories of adults and attempt to reproduce stories as close to the real life as possible. In contrast, in Trackton, the fictionalization of stories is not only allowed but also encouraged since the ability to the fictionalization defines the value of a storyteller in the Trackton community. In such a way, the creative elements are encouraged in the language development of children in the Trackton community, while the Roadville community appreciates realism of story-telling as an essential development of the development of correct language forms.

Also, the author indicates to the priority of talking to in the Trackton community and reading to in the Raodville community. This means that the Trackton community lays emphasis on the oral language that results in the acquisition of the current language, which is affected by current trends, while the Roadville community focuses on the teaching of correct language patterns which is achieved through reading since written texts provide correct language forms, which are naturally changed or used incorrectly in the oral speech. In fact, Shirley Brice Heath underlines the important of literate traditions in the Roadville community, though reading prevails over writing there and children are encouraged to read or listen rather than writing. As for the Trackton, neither writing nor reading is encouraged. The author argues that it is through the oral speech the language development mainly occurs in the Trackton community while literate traditions are poorly developed.

On researching both the Trackton and Roadville community, Shirley Brice Heath contrasts both communities to the Townspeople, who are representatives of the middle class. The author argues that the townspeople have a different attitude to children. They view children as potential conversationalists from birth and mothers are primary caregivers, while fathers often perform the function of breadwinners. In the process of the language development, the townspeople use baby talk and question-answer routine to talk with their babies.

Furthermore, the townspeople are more concerned with reading and writing and they attempt to mirror the expectations of the school. In such a way, they prepare their children to schooling and attempt to lay foundation for their language competence using written sources to apply in the oral or written material of their own. It is worth mentioning that reading and writing are activities which all members of this community participating in for work and for leisure.

Finally, the author ends her book extrapolating her major findings concerning the language development in different communities on the teaching and learning practices. To put it more precisely, the author underlines the importance of taking into consideration the cultural background of students in the process of teaching. At the same time, she argues that teachers should be learners themselves in order to broaden their eyesight and get possibly larger information on their students as well as the language development. The latter is particularly important and Heath’s findings can be very useful for educators because they provide teachers with valuable material concerning different language development models and strategies used in different communities. In such a way, the author proves her hypothesis that the cultural environment affects consistently the language development since different cultural backgrounds result in the focus on oral or written language, for instance, as well as other substantial differences in the language development.

Thus, the book “Ways with Words” by Shirley Brice Heath can be very useful for a broad range of readers, from specialists, such as linguists, anthropologist and educators, to parents.

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