Learning culture

The One Big Happy cartoon from 1/6, recently up in my comics feed:

Ruthie and Joe are engaged in picking up elements of culture — American commercial culture, to be specific — beginning this particular bit of learning by reproducing material they’ve heard on tv, without much appreciation for what it means.

This is in line with kids’ learning of other bits of culture — song lyrics, joke routines, patterns of swearing and insulting, greeting and leave-taking routines, and much much more. At the same time that kids are picking up new words at a great rate, they are also incorporating those words into ways of performing the verbal bits of social life. (Meanwhile, they’re learning gestures, facial expressions, the physical elements of dances, games, and sports, and the rest of a vast universe of nonverbal behavior, which then has to be coordinated with verbal behavior.)

And much of this has to be picked up “on the fly”, from observing what people around you do, without being explicitly instructed — a fact that guarantees that their first efforts at performing these bits of culture will be decidedly imperfect and will have to be honed by practice.

(Consequently, the OBH kids’ (apparently) perfect reproduction of what they heard on tv suggests that they’ve experienced the material a number of times; hardly anyone can reproduce complex verbal material verbatim on only one hearing.)

From my 7/19/19 posting “Choosing the words”, on two OBH cartoons about learning to tell jokes:

Ruthie is certain [a joke is] uproariously funny — presumably, from the laughs she’s witnessed other people getting from telling the joke — but in fact she doesn’t know why. She’s on the learning curve for joke-telling, but not yet at its peak

… Part of acquiring a language is acquiring a large assortment of social routines using that language — including joke patterns. Linguists studying conversation have looked at the acquisition of a number of different joke types, for example knock-knock jokes, where they see the gradual unfolding of the abilities involved in producing and appreciating jokes. For instance, many jokes turn on puns, so that a child has to learn that exact wording can be crucial to the joke; paraphrase won’t do. But children often fail to appreciate that, while still understanding that laughter is called for at a certain point in the joke.

(Examples in the earlier posting.)

2 Responses to “Learning culture”

  1. Michael Vnuk Says:

    Yes, I remember my son telling us, when he was about four or five, that we could buy something (I can’t remember what it was) ‘at selected retailers’. This phrasing must have come from television.

    And as for jokes, even as an adult, several times I repeated a joke that I had heard other people laughing at, only to find out much later that it meant something different, or that I had missed a deeper level. I try to be more careful now.

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    I remember my maternal grandmother telling a joke that was essentially about the importance of getting the exact wording of a joke right. It’s about an Englishman visiting the US and asking a farming family what they did with all their produce, and getting the response “We eat what we can, and what we can’t, we can.” The Englishman, in reporting on this to his compatriots back home, remarks on the strange habits of Americans: “They eat what they’re able to, and what they’re not, they tin.”

    It’s not that funny, and I think the only reason it stuck in my mind is that my grandmother didn’t tell many jokes.

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