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