Sunday, 14 April 2013

I Think We Need to Talk

‘Ooh, don’t talk to him like that. He won’t understand.’

That’s the kind of comment my husband used to get when he took our then-baby son out. Why old women felt free to berate him on how he looked after our baby, I don’t know. They didn’t assail me with quite so much advice. Perhaps they assumed a father needs more advice than does a mother. They would spend a lot of time telling him that Oscar (I’m sorry. That’s not his name, but I can’t think of another, and I went with that last time) was going to catch his death of cold. He was born in a blazing hot June, and spent a lot of time naked with a muslin cloth shading him from the sun, but no matter how hot the sun my husband would be told by old ladies in coats and hats that he needed more clothes on. When Oscar was a little older the old women moved on to ‘you don’t want to use long words like that with him,’ whenever my husband spoke to him. That slotted in with the ‘where’s your shoes?’ and ‘shouldn’t you have a hair cut?’ and ‘you don’t want to play with dolls!’ that came at regular intervals as he grew older.

Thankfully our habit of using long words – our general habit of talking to our children as if they can understand what we’re saying no matter what their age – has just been vindicated. Gwen Dewar reports here on a study that shows a correlation between the amount of words that babies hear spoken to them and their academic performance later in life. Unsurprisingly, those children who are exposed to more speech – more interaction, more attention, one would assume – perform better at reading and have a better vocabulary. Another study cited in the article showed that ‘use of sophisticated vocabulary during free play predicted kids’ reading comprehension scores.’

This will perhaps be why at five my eldest son was using phrases like ‘vis a vis’ (correctly, too.) He was very slow to speak – he barely spoke at all until he was two, instead creating a range of signs and sounds for things. But he cracked it, and is now far more eloquent than a lot of his peers. For a long time I was worried that he wasn’t picking up reading that fast, but now, at seven, he can devour a Roald Dahl book in a couple of hours and stay awake until 11 p.m. reading. So I’m glad that we always used long words with him. I’m glad we said ‘thank you’ and not ‘ta,’ and spoke of ‘trains’ and ‘sheep’ rather than ‘choo-choos’ and ‘baa-lambs.’ I’m glad we have books in every room, including the bathroom, and I’m glad he picks them up and looks at them. I’m glad I didn’t dumb my language down, and still don’t. Instead, I explain words if he asks me to, and trust him to understand or at least learn to understand me if he doesn’t. I tell him the origins of words, what languages they come from, how words in other languages are similar.

That leads me on to bilingualism, which is another factor in my children’s lives. Bilingualism is heavily pushed around here by a government which, thank God, recognises the benefits of learning multiple languages at a young age. The second language here is Welsh, which may not lead on to a great prospect of communicating in other countries (Patagonia, maybe?), but does at least open minds to different words in different languages, to different grammar and syntax, and to different ways of expressing ideas.

This is a favourite at bedtime for Ben.
He's too young to tell me to read it in English.
I can’t claim to be a fluent Welsh speaker. I was taught it up to the age of fifteen and deeply resented it. Now, of course, I regret not paying more attention – but I can at least read books in Welsh to my children and they have a bilingual education at school. So they’re exposed to two languages at a very young age, to all of the Celtic and Latin-origin words that Welsh contains as well as all the variously sourced words in English. Since they know that ‘eglwys’ means ‘church’ it won’t be a great stretch to them to learn that the French for church is ‘église’, or the Spanish, ‘iglesia.’ Their brains will be used to stretching for other words with other meaning. What a wonderful thing it is for a child to be trusted to be capable of learning, and to be given education for their minds to take hold of. But still people keep perpetuating the attitude of, ‘oh, you don’t want to teach them more than one language. It’ll confuse them.’ I know people who have been told this by ‘well-meaning’ friends, and have actually listened, and denied their children the joy of bilingualism.

We can put these kind of suggestions in the basket along with, ‘I think it’s time you visited a barber, young man,’ and ‘wouldn’t you rather play with cars?’, and ‘ooh, look at your bare feet! You’ll catch your death!’

But what do all these comments by various strangers about how we bring up our children say about our society? About our attitude to parenting? About the alteration in society from close-knit communities to ever-varying masses of people who move in and out of contact like jellyfish caught in the tide? I think that might be my next topic for this blog.


  1. I have to admit to teaching my children the shortcuts like "ta" for thank you, but I mix it in with the correct, I have this distinct feeling of hypocrisy if I teach my children one way and promptly use a different one so I like to teach them many. We obviously say thank you to our youngest when she gives us something, loudly proclaim "cheers" to each other when receiving something off the other and ask her to say "ta" or "thank you" when she's given something. If she says "ta" we tell her it was nice of her to say "thank you", I hope by doing this she will learn that there are various ways of intoning gratitude and for now an intelligible "ta" is more widely recognised outside of the family than a garbled "abbalu" is understood at home, as her grasp of putting the sounds together for non-family members gets better I will increase the use of "thank you" over the use of "ta" but she will still understand that if someone says "ta" or "cheers" to her they mean "thank you". As you so eloquently put it is the exposure to language and it's nuances from an early age that is important. My 10 year old is now asking me about etymology and is really excited to learn about how words work and their different meanings in different contexts, it's wonderful. As a fluent Welsh speaker myself I can testify to how amazing it is to be exposed to the variety of two wholly different languages, I hope that our children grow to enjoy this experience too. Those three boys are some very lucky children to have you guys as parents, such a fantastic start in life :)

    1. It's so exciting when they start to get interested in words and what they mean, and before that, as they start to become more and more fluent with language and you start to get a window into their minds :-)

  2. If I had kids they would be fluid in english and postpunk
    the end