chapter  1
The language children bring to school
Pages 23

There is a historical bias to this chapter and the next. That is not to claim that the two, taken together, constitute a literature survey, if that term is taken as a claim to exhaustiveness, or even to some degree of completeness. Rather I offer a sketch map, of limited but, I hope, positive use. Interest in the process by which a baby -

'An infant crying for the light, And with no language but a cry'

- becomes a talking, comprehending child is widely shared and is of so long standing that it is not possible to put a date on it. It is however possible to claim that in the recent past, and most notably in the last twenty-five years, that interest has been pursued with a degree of vigour and tenacity and seriousness that does not seem to have a precedent. The study of language acquisition has in that time come to occupy a central position in the concerns of linguists. It has for longer than that time been a matter of compelling interest for people involved in children's education, for parents and therapists and administrators as well as for teachers. Anyone who shares that interest inherits a recent history that has been eventful, charged with vitality, full of change. Questions that not long ago in terms of chronological time seemed critically important now seem less so. What it once seemed safe and necessary to ignore now claims attention. Topics that for a time generated much activity in speculation and research have been set aside as exhausted, and then rediscovered and reinterpreted. The result of so much activity is a very large literature, much of it written for a specialist public already thoroughly familiar with the writers' assumptions and terms of reference, and consequently not at all readily accessible to the reader who comes fresh to it, several years later. Book lists on the acquisition and development of language, even where these are carefully

prepared, classified under headings and annotated for the use of interested enquirers, seem to them forbidding, simply by their length. If so huge an investment of time is required just to read one's way into the subject, is their (usually unspoken) response, what will survive of that responsiveness to children engaged in the language-acquiring process that prompted the initial enquiry? At the same time the literature cannot be ignored. Students I have worked with feel insecure in the absence of information about the history of a topic which, whether from choice or because of the requirements of a chosen course, they have undertaken to study. Without some indication of at least the salient features, the time scale, the major contributors, and the recent and current items of debate, what they are asked to read seems to them full of contradictions, preoccupied by controversies the meaning and significance of which are alike unclear, an assembly of large generalisations and unmemorable data that they can neither interpret nor apply. That insecurity is resolved, at least to a degree that makes continuation possible, when they know enough of what has happened in the recent past to see themselves as inheritors of traditions, participants who enter at a particular stage of the debate (and need to inform themselves, so to speak, by access to the minutes), enquirers, whose interests are in great part determined, as are the means of enquiry available to them, by their point of entry to the ongoing, developing discussion. They are in a position then to admire innovatory and influential ideas even if they are no longer current. The records of past controversies no longer confuse and irritate, and there are better reasons than the limits on energy and time for making selections from the literature available.