Language Acquisition

A Poem and Essay

By Paul Rossiter

my name is Pat
my field is language acquisition
and I’m trying to find out
how Japanese children acquire directives

I have lots of data
and there are a number of frequent patterns
for example

when a mother requests an action by a child
it usually comes with a reason why the child should comply

because that’s the way things are done
because Mother wants you to do it
because people will make fun of you if you don’t

now I’m in a living room
and Aki-chan is eating a mikan, a Japanese orange
and her mother says: Patricia-san says ‘I want some too’

I’ve said no such thing

the not-deaf child
studies me carefully from under her fringe

then holds out the mikan towards me

(from: Paul Rossiter, From the Japanese, Isobar Press, 2013)


This poem (taken from my fourth collection, From the Japanese) is an unusual one for me. During the forty-five years that I’ve been writing poetry, this is only the third time I’ve spoken from behind a mask – the persona in this case being Patricia Clancy of the department of linguistics at UC Santa Barbara. I hope she’ll be happy with the company she’s keeping: the other two personae who have appeared in my poems are Matsuo Bashō and the anonymous windswept protagonist of the ‘The Seafarer’, an Anglo-Saxon elegy from the tenth-century Exeter Book. The piece is also unusual in that it’s stylistically different from most of my other poems, which are usually more visual and less anecdotal in nature. In another way, the poem is not only unusual but unique: in spite of having taught English for over thirty years and having taught language education and second language acquisition at graduate school level in Japan for nearly twenty years, this is the only poem I’ve ever written about language learning.

Partly on account of the poem being so anomalous, and partly because of its unusually various reception by readers – a story I’ll tell in a moment – I almost excluded it when assembling From the Japanese. However, an unexpectedly appreciative comment by a reader caused me to change my mind, and I now think both that it’s earned its place in the collection, and that an account of the variety of ways in which it’s been received by readers will provide an illustration of how knowledge of the world (particularly culture-specific knowledge) can affect the reading process. The poem thus brings together three topics which someone like myself – who has taught both literary and non-literary reading in a foreign language context – finds intrinsically interesting: language acquisition (the overt topic of the poem), reading comprehension research, and poetry.

* * *

The poem was triggered by reading Patricia M. Clancy’s ‘The acquisition of communicative style in Japanese’, a chapter in the volume Language Socialization Across Cultures, edited by Bambi B. Schieffelin and Elinor Ochs (Cambridge University Press, 1987). The chapter reports Clancy’s investigation of mother-child interactions in three families in Tokyo; the children were about two years old at the time, and the data were gathered in the form of a series of hour-long recordings. Clancy was interested in how, through interaction with their mothers, Japanese children acquire a Japanese culture-specific communicative style, one which Clancy characterises as being context-dependent, inexplicit, and indirect, and which especially values unanimity, conformity, empathy, and anticipation of the needs of others.

Clancy’s chapter is a rich report of a fascinating piece of language acquisition research, and there’s no space here to summarise more than the parts of it which are directly relevant to the poem. The major focus of the chapter is on directives (that is, speech acts by means of which the addresser tries to get the addressee to do – or not do, or stop doing – some specific thing). Clancy categorises the directive strategies used by the mothers in her study on a continuum ranging from direct commands (imperative verb forms) to ‘situational conventional directives’ (indirect forms only interpretable in context), such as Sooseeji arimasuka? ‘Is there any sausage?’ meaning ‘Please give me some’ (p. 223). Among the most indirect forms of directive are sentences (almost always without surface grammatical subjects) functioning as generalisations about social norms (Sonna koto yuwanai yo  ‘(One) doesn’t say that kind of thing’, p. 223), hints (Mata puu shiteru ‘(You’re) farting again’, p. 226 ), or rhetorical questions (Mada sore taberu no? ‘Are (you) still eating that? p. 225), all  which were clearly understood by the children as meaning ‘stop it’.

One notable feature of the mothers’ indirect directives is mentioned in the poem: the directives are often accompanied – or even replaced – by reasons why the child should comply. These reasons often take the form of maxims of social behaviour (as in Sonna koto yuwanai yo  ‘(One) doesn’t say that kind of thing’, quoted above). Another extremely common kind – discussed more fully below – is a reason based on the wishes, needs or feelings of the other people in the conversation; ‘mother wants you to do it’ is the example in the poem. One interesting feature of these reasons – and of indirect directives generally – is that, even if they are not direct statements of social norms, they do nevertheless embody and transmit those norms: Mata puu shiteru not only means ‘Please stop farting now’ but also implicitly provides a maxim of proper behaviour to the child: ‘One doesn’t fart in company.’

Thus, as the term ‘language socialization’ in the title of Schieffelin and Ochs’s book suggests, the process of first language acquisition is not merely a matter of children learning to comprehend the functional meanings that lie behind surface language forms, nor of learning discrete language tokens which might work for the children themselves as directives; crucially, it’s also a matter of their internalising social norms. Clancy claims that this training in appropriate linguistic and social behaviour – an intrinsic part of child language acquisition in all cultures – is particularly strong in Japan. The mothers in Clancy’s study never lost an opportunity to inculcate Japanese norms for speech and behaviour in their children by teaching them polite formulaic phrases suitable for a variety of social situations – Arigatoo (‘Thank you’), Itadakimasu (‘I will receive it’, said before eating), Gochisoosama deshita (‘It was a fine meal’), and many others (p. 235). However, Clancy notes that an even more important feature of the mothers’ attempts to train their children to conform to social expectations consists in ‘appealing to the imagined reactions of hito “other people”, who are watching and evaluating the child’s behavior’; she cites previous studies which report that ‘Japanese mothers often tell a misbehaving child, Hito ni warawareru “You will be laughed at by people”’ (p. 236). This reason also appears in the poem.

An important part of Clancy’s argument is that this kind of ‘conformity training’ – as she perhaps rather chillingly calls it – is the reverse side of the coin of another major concern of the mothers in her study, ‘empathy training.’ ‘In Japan,’ she points out, ‘where interpersonal communication relies so heavily upon intuition and empathy, conformity to group norms can be seen as an essential aspect of communicative style. For the system to work, people must be interpretable, which means that their thoughts and feelings must fall within the range of others’ ability to imagine and understand, even without any explicit verbal expression’ (p. 216). She thus argues that the Japanese cultural emphasis on mutual dependency and social harmony, with its concomitant valorisation of sensitivity to the wishes and feelings of others, leads mothers to engage both in empathy training (to ensure that their children develop the ability to understand others) and conformity training (to ensure that the children are themselves understandable to others).

In fact, there is an even greater emphasis on empathy than on conformity training in Clancy’s data. Of all the rationales for a child to perform an action given by mothers, no less than 45 percent took the form of an appeal for empathy, either explicit or implicit (p. 232). Given the Japanese emphasis on anticipating the needs of others in such a way that the others won’t be obliged to make a direct request, Clancy comments: ‘One might well wonder how Japanese children learn to “read the minds” of other people in this way.’ The answer suggested by her data seems, she says, to be ‘rather simple: Their mothers tell them what other people are thinking and feeling in various situations.’ Clancy gives several examples, including the one that seemed to me to encapsulate Clancy’s argument, together with my own anecdotal sense of how I’d seen child language acquisition working, in a single resonant instance. (In the quotation below, the mother uses the term oneesantachi – literally ‘elder sisters’, a term often used to refer to young women and girls who are not part of the family circle – when referring to Clancy and her female Japanese research assistant.) Thus, when children were playing a game of being host or hostess, ‘their mothers would attribute requests for food to other people as part of the game. They also did this if the children were eating alone, without offering anything to others. Once, when [a child] … was eating a tangerine, his mother suddenly said, Oneesantachi mo tabetai tte “The girls also say, ‘We want to eat’”, although we had not said anything.’ Clancy also gives examples of direct requests (Oneechan omocha misete tte ‘Older sister says, “Show me your toys”’) and emotional reactions (Neechan itai-itai tte ‘Older sister says, “Ouch, ouch”’) attributed to others who had not spoken (p. 233).

There was something in the tangerine incident that I found striking, almost haunting, and this imaginative response was the seed of the poem. The incident seemed to encapsulate in one memorable anecdote a key issue in child language acquisition, namely the interdependent relationship between acquiring a language and entering a culture – or, to put it another way, the way in which, in acquiring his or her first language, a child is also inevitably learning how to become an acceptable person in the culture which is transmitted through that language’s use. In particular, I found myself wondering what the child might have been feeling at that instant, and whether there might be any costs to go along with the obvious benefits involved in language socialisation.

* * *

A passage I used to give my applied linguistics students when I wanted to make them aware of the effect on reading comprehension of patterns of pre-existing knowledge of the world – or ‘content schemata’, to use the applied linguistics term – was this: ‘Rocky lay on the mat and considered his position. Could he escape? The lock didn’t seem to be too strong; perhaps he could break it.’ I asked the students to say what the setting of this snippet of narrative was. They always said that Rocky was in a prison of some kind and was working out how he could escape. I then pointed out that this passage (or, in fact, the slightly longer passage of which my text is an adaptation) had first been published in the newsletter of a wresting club at an American University. The sound of interpretations being adjusted was audible in the students’ gasps of surprise; clearly, they had more experience of reading thrillers than of participating in bouts of all-in wrestling, but once provided with a context, they were able to radically transform what had previously seemed to be a self-evident textual meaning.

This example, specially chosen for its pedagogic effect, is of course an extreme case of knowledge of the world affecting comprehension; nevertheless, there is a great deal of research which shows that such knowledge affects, to a greater or lesser extent, all reading, and that in fact comprehension cannot occur without the bringing to bear of such knowledge on the text. This deployment of knowledge of the world is not by itself the whole story concerning comprehension, of course; it’s a necessary but not sufficient part of the reading process. The reader’s knowledge of the world – along with his or her knowledge of genre, that is, of how texts work and are typically organised – has to engage with, process, and be affected by the language of the text before reading comprehension can be said to have occurred. A portion of text is deciphered, the result is compared with pre-existing knowledge, which is altered or confirmed in the light of the language sample; then further sampling takes place in the light of the updated or confirmed knowledge; and so the act of reading continues in an ongoing interaction between top-down and bottom-up processing. Nevertheless, even if we need to be careful not to over-emphasise the role of content schemata in interpretation, the story of the reception of the poem ‘Language Acquisition’ provides, I believe, a good example of the spontaneous application of such schemata – at least some of which seem to be culture-specific – and the way in which this may radically alter comprehension of a text.

In writing the poem I was trying both to convey the oddly haunting quality – as I experienced it – of the incident reported by Clancy, and to capture what I see as a key feature of the first language acquisition process in as economical and memorable a manner as possible. To see whether the poem had achieved that, I took it for comment to a writers’ workshop which I occasionally attended at that time. (The protocol in this workshop was: everyone reads the text of the poem silently; then the poet reads it aloud; and then everyone comments on the poem without the poet being allowed to speak or affect the interpretative or critical process in any way.) The poem was well received. One commentator, a male Canadian writer, particularly liked it. He focused on the phrase ‘the not-deaf child’ and spoke about anti-psychiatry, R. D. Laing’s The Divided Self, and in particular about the way in which society drives its children mad by causing them to doubt the evidence of their own senses, thus setting up an irreconcilable schizophrenic conflict between what one knows (or thought one knew) and what one has been taught to know, with the latter progressively erasing the former (and in some cases ultimately causing the disintegration of the self). The process of alienation from the real self and creation of a false self was, he claimed, especially prevalent in Japanese culture.

There was a certain amount of agreement with this proposition – in the form of nodding heads and verbal support – from the non-Japanese members of the group. Certainly, the commentary seemed to catch some of the issues that I’d felt were in play in the reported incident, but it seemed too strongly expressed, too relentlessly negative in its view of the socialisation process in general, and of Japanese socialisation in particular; after all, it’s hard to argue that the majority of members of a specific culture – especially one as successful as that of Japan – have been driven mad by their upbringing. I wondered what the two Japanese writers in the room – a middle-aged man and a young woman – neither of whom had so far commented, thought of all this, so I broke with protocol and asked if either of them had any comment. The young woman immediately spoke up, brightly and confidently. ‘I like this poem,’ she said; ‘it shows a well-informed and deep understanding of Japanese culture. The young girl is being taught generosity.’

A silence fell in the room. I think everyone immediately saw that the two interpretations were radically different in orientation and tone, that they could both be justified from the text, that the interpretation arrived at was strongly affected by culture-specific patterns of knowledge of the world, and that to pursue the discussion any further wouldn’t lead anywhere except to potentially upsetting statements of disagreement. We moved on to the next poem.

I found this incident of interpretative dissonance interesting. One the one hand, I had the queasy feeling that maybe my poem was so vaguely written that it merely functioned as a kind of Rorschach blot onto which people could project their presuppositions. On the other hand, though, I was quite pleased that the conflict of interpretations was in a sense an enactment of the question underlying the poem about whether there might be costs to go along with the benefits involved in language socialisation. Looking at the same text about language acquisition, the Canadian man saw nothing but costs while the Japanese woman saw nothing but benefits.

Later in the poem’s reception history, the plot thickened a little more. I showed the poem on separate occasions to two different friends, both male, both British, and both fathers of two children. They were nonplussed; one said, ‘What’s this all about?’; the other commented, ‘With young children one does anything at all that works.’ Clearly, the poem hadn’t passed the fatherhood test; reading in the light of knowledge of the world gained in the field of child-raising, neither of them could see why I’d written the poem, and both of them (politely) let me know that they found it banal.

At this point, I lost confidence in the poem, and when I was preparing the manuscript of From the Japanese, I decided to exclude it. However, when I told my wife – an active researcher and writer in the field of fairy-tale scholarship – that that’s what I was doing, she said something that made me look at the poem again and see it in quite a different light. ‘Oh, it’s a pity you’re dropping that one,’ she said; ‘it was one of my favourites.’ I was startled. ‘Oh, really, why?’ I asked. ‘It’s about the moment when the research becomes real,’ she said. Here was another person, speaking from another knowledge perspective, and finding another interpretation – in this case, one I hadn’t foreseen.

Well, yes, I suppose that’s right, I thought. The child turns the tables and herself ‘studies’ the researcher, thereby causing the research to become interactive rather than one-way, a matter of participants rather than of the researcher-subject dichotomy; both researcher and child enter fully into the moment of the research, a moment which has moved beyond theory and methodology and into the realm of the interpersonal. As a result, the researcher receives, not necessarily the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but a real and specifically Japanese fruit, a mikan, together with a valuable moment of interactive insight into Japan-specific processes of child language acquisition and language socialisation.

Further, this interpretation helped me to understand better why I’d been fascinated by this incident when I first read about it in Clancy’s chapter (and perhaps even why, for no reason that I could have articulated at the time, I’d changed the gender of the child in the poem from male to female). One way of looking at first language acquisition – following Lacan and others – might be that it constitutes an entry into the symbolic order, which necessarily involves a ‘fall’ from paradisiacal infanthood into the constrictions and inevitable frustrations involved in becoming a social being. The child’s passing of the fruit perhaps catches a faint echo of this ‘fall’, not into sexual knowledge as in the Genesis story, but into language and thereby into the world of social knowledge, encapsulated in this case by the maxim ‘One shares one’s food in company’, but here lived out in actuality by child, mother and researchers.

I hadn’t foreseen or intended this ‘Edenic’ interpretation of the poem. Could it be that in this sense it’s not a ‘valid’ interpretation? There’s a famous story concerning the meaning of the adjective country-handed in Dylan Thomas’s line ‘The country-handed grave boxed into love’. Edith Sitwell saw in this a ‘rural picture of a farmer growing flowers and corn’. Thomas himself replied that this wasn’t at all his intention; he’d seen the grave as a boxer with fists as big as countries. Is Thomas’s interpretation the ‘right’ one? Or should we accept Sitwell’s interpretation as being as ‘valid’ as Thomas’s even though Thomas had never intended it?

I’m inclined to go with Sitwell here. I’ve already mentioned my fear that the variety of interpretations of my poem might have arisen simply because the poem is so vaguely written as to function as a Rorschach blot; this, I suppose, might indeed be the case. However, the interpretations all seem to me to be focused, crisp and strong – and justifiable in terms of the language on the page – so I prefer to see the indeterminacy of the poem in a more favourable light: I’m glad the poem is ‘open for interpretation’ and doesn’t insist on enforcing a single authoritative meaning, and I’m glad also that this indeterminacy doesn’t apparently prevent interest in and enjoyment of the poem, or inhibit the pleasurable construction of robustly individual interpretations by its readers. It seems to me that all poems to some extent, and some poems to a considerable extent, are not only ‘open for interpretation’, but require that kind of participation on the part of the reader if a rich and plausible interpretation of the poem is to be made. In this sense, the interpretation of poetry is perhaps merely an extreme case of something that is happening in all reading comprehension.