Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
As we have seen in the previous chapters, the patterns of linguistic interaction which typify family life involve the child from the start as a conversational partner. And a crucial aspect of being an effective party to a conversation is the ability to understand the utterances of the other person. However, comprehension is much more than just the ability to understand isolated linguistic messages; indeed, that ability is a relatively late acquisition in the development of language. Comprehension means understanding, and we shall therefore emphasise all the many factors which contribute to the child's understanding, not just of language, but also of the interactive contexts which give rise to the use of language. Language forms and functions reflect and mould the coordination of seemingly disparate activities in diverse contexts into a unified and coherent setting for rule governed interactions. Ways of speaking, then, depend upon context; but they are also the means whereby situational contexts are crystallised into interactional settings.
In this chapter, we shall consider the communication process from the standpoint of comprehension rather than production. We shall try to present an account which gives full weight to the cognitive complexity of language comprehension, and to the equally complex strategies which children draw upon to make sense of language. Our account begins at the earliest stages of language development, with a description of how children interpret simple utterances referring to aspects of the immediate context.