Monday, February 16, 2009

Children's Vocabulary

Children’s Vocabulary

These days we hear a lot about the need to improve our public schools, about falling behind in our educational standards compared to other developed nations, about the need for more homework and better parent/teacher teamwork in preparing our children for the current century. I also hear a lot of vulgarity and baby talk. The two situations are not unrelated.

In many cases our educational problems begin at home with baby talk. Children are talked down to with useless, infantile words like “wa-wa” and “din-din,” with stilted speech patterns, and that sort of elevated tone of voice commonly used with elderly individuals thought to be hard of hearing and confused. Children learn cuss words from television, movies, and parents who use them unthinkingly. Children are limited in the range of their vocabulary by the stunted vocabulary used by the people and institutions around them.

We hear a lot about “phonics” and sounding out the word, but if you’ve never heard the word “reference,” for instance, how are you supposed to recognize it when you’re a child sounding it out?

My kids never got baby talk. One of my eldest son’s first words was “gladiator.” And my children have thanked me, unprompted, for the advantage this gave them in school. They saw too many of their classmates struggle to read words they had never encountered before. It made learning to read like learning a second language.

We’ve often wondered how school-kids could ever flunk English. Sure, it’s a large and complex language. And some kids blow off their homework or do poorly with some exam formats. But English is their native language isn’t it? Are they doomed by a cultural upbringing limited to five hundred partially made-up words and a complete absence of recreational reading?

I’ve known smart people to rise above this sort of handicap, but it leaves its traces. They’ve learned the words, can spell them reliably, but pronounce them as they imagine they ought to be pronounced. How do I correct the pronunciation of a college graduate who simply has never heard the word spoken by other people of broader conversational experience? Perhaps, if they start listening to books on tape, the right books on tape, they’ll notice the differences and correct themselves.

The first cuss words my kids ever learned they picked up from other kids in preschool. Not that trash talk has never sullied my lips. No, I’m ashamed to admit that particularly in college unthinking vulgarities flowed from me like pauses for breath. But having children changed all that. Suddenly those little ears, those little play-back tape recorders got me thinking about everything I said and everything I wanted to say.

At first, when my kids let slip the vulgarities they’d learned elsewhere, I’d shut them up with one simple tactic. I’d ask, “Do you know what that word means?” “No,” they’d reply. “Then you probably shouldn’t use it.”

Of course, eventually, they were able to sheepishly answer, “Yes.” My response then changed to, “Do you use language like that in front of your teachers?” “No,” they’d reply with some shock.

“Good, please don’t use it in front of me either.”

They are learning the differences between the many types of language that English now contains within it: the infantile, the casual, the vulgar, the proper, the educated, and the business-like. In their lives-to-come they may need them all, but the vulgar and the infantile they don’t need to learn at home. The language they learn first, best, most naturally will be the language they learned at home.

I have a friend from Spain who teaches Art at a Midwestern University. Yes, she has an accent, but her vocabulary is better than that of most of her publicly educated students. When I say “publicly,” I don’t just mean the public schools. I mean all the language learning these eighteen through twenty-something native speakers of English have encountered in the whole of their lives. Whatever they’ve read, whoever they’ve listened to, wherever they’ve traveled, it has not been enough. Certainly not enough for legitimately qualified college students!

Given the richness and complexity of English, perhaps no one truly knows enough. But it’s a challenge most of us have given up on or ignored. Sure it’s cute to be able to convey sixty-seven separate shades of meaning with different pronunciations of the word “Dude,” but none of them are likely to be on the test or provide you with much of a business connection with a tri-lingual foreign national.

I agree that it can be hard for our teachers to teach our children. Common household and media English are simply not enough help. What’s going on in your home? A five year-old should, with practice, be able to say any word you know, even if the particulars of its meaning are unclear. Have we forgotten “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?” Of course your kids can learn vocabulary! What vocabulary are you giving them to use, “shit” and “damn,” or “substantial, innovative, and unconstitutional?” The language they speak may well determine who they become. What are you preparing your own children to be? When we choose to talk ‘down’ to our kids and to those other children around us we unintentionally help to keep them down for the rest of their lives.


French Fancy said...

I totally agree with you. My parents never talked baby talk to me and from quite a young age I was given ten new words to learn every day. Not enough parents are making that extra little bit of effort to help their children acquire a rich and varied vocabulary.

I don't know anything about 'phonics' though.

Larry M. Brow said...

Phonics has been a disastrous effort to encourage reading by letting kids sound out words. Unfortunately, English is far from that simple, and if the kid has never heard the word used before.... It has also led to kids who are horrible at spelling, because extra emphasis has been put on just being free to communicate and not being worried about getting everything perfect. I must stop or I will rant.