Friday, 4 April 2014

On talking about language to little ones

A correspondent tweeted a problem: 'My 5 year old keeps asking who decided all the words. Can you recommend any reading around this for her age?'

What a sharp 5-year-old! And a tricky one to answer. I've written about language for young people, but never as young as that. A Little Book of Language was primarily aimed at young teenagers - a memorable experience for me because, to check I'd got the level right, I had it read by a 12-year-old. I'd rather have a book critically reviewed by Chomsky! She pulled no punches.

In 2012 the NSPCC published a lovely little book called Big Questions from Little People. It took 100 questions asked by children and got experts to answer them. A few were linguistic:

Why can't animals talk like us? (Noam Chomsky)
Who wrote the first book ever? (Martin Lyons)
How did we first learn to write? (John Man)
Why do we have an alphabet? (John Man)
Who named all the cities? (Mark Forsyth)
Why do we speak English? (me)

It was so successful it published a sequel in 2013 called Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am? This time the language questions were:

Do spiders speak? (George McGavin)
If you shouted in space, would you hear anything? (Ben Miller)
Do animals like cows and sheep have accents? (John Wells)
How do we learn to speak? (Gary Marcus)
Why do we have books? (Maria Popova)
Do babies think in words or their own language? (Charles Fernyhough)
If oranges are called oranges, why aren't bananas called yellows? (Philip Gooden)
Is silence a sound? (Quentin Cooper)
Why do cats 'miaow', cows 'moo' and sheep 'baa'? (David Bellos)
How many languages are there in the world? (me)

Some of these questions were asked by children as young as four. Finding a way to answer them that accommodates sucessfully to the age is really hard.

For 5s, the ideal approach, to my mind, is to create stories with appealing characters, plots, and illustrations, and I've not come across many cases where writers have tried to introduce linguistic metalanguage (basic notions, such as 'words') in a story-telling way. Usually, such writing is for older children (aka adults), such as James Thurber's The Wonderful O. I devised an entire programme on this basis once, called DIAL ('Developing Ideas About Language', aimed at primary kids, and entirely story-driven; but (this was the 1980s) the publisher who commissioned the idea never went ahead with it. I've since been keeping an eye open for similar material. A lovely example is Cynthia Rylant's The Old Woman Who Named Things (1996). Maybe readers of this post will be able to provide some further instances: the crucial point is that the story must focus on at least one metalinguistic term.

12 comments:

Adrian Morgan said...

Sometime last year I bought a copy of A Little Book of Language because it was in the bookshop and had your name on it.

But I soon realised I wasn't the target audience, since it was about things I already knew and used language that reminded me of books I read when I was eight.

I decided it would probably be useful to someone, though, so I gave it to family to read and see if they could think of anyone who might benefit from it. If not, there was always the possibility of donating it to their local (school and community) library.

Last I heard, my sister was thinking of giving it to a speech pathologist she knows for the purpose of lending to clients (typically parents of young children) who want to be better informed.

I have not enquired recently as to whether a decision was reached, but I trust you would be happy with the outcomes I've mentioned above.

DC said...

Very happy. What I also hope is that parents will talk about some of the topics together with the kids, as the development of a metalinguistic awareness is known to be an important factor in fostering language growth. Talking about language always promotes language use.

@BobK99 said...

"I've not come across many cases where writers have tried to introduce linguistic metalanguage (basic notions, such as 'words') in a story-telling way."

'You must not forget the Just So Stories, best beloved,' as Kipling so nearly said!

Last time I had an idea for a book - I even had a Windows folder called 100Words, with a few notes in it - I found that you had got there first. Can I have first dibs on this idea?!

b

DC said...

Sorry about that! But there's plenty of scope for other lexical selections, you know.

And similarly for anything metalinguistic. I've no plans to do anything here at present. My DIAL programme remains on a dusty shelf somewhere.

@BobK99 said...

PS On second thoughts, Just So Stories doesn't provide much of a counterexample; How the Camel Got his Hump is the only one I recall that touches on language - and in that case the hump is just a physical reminder of his 'Hmph'. And there's the boring bit (at least _I_ found it boring back in the late 'fifties) about the origins of the alphabet.

b

Michael Vnuk said...

I read somewhere that The Word Spy (2008) and The Return of the Word Spy (2010) by Ursula Dubosarsky are great for introducing linguistic concepts to children (although not for children as young as five). So we borrowed them and our ten-year-old son read them twice, laughed out loud at some of the jokes, and mentioned a number of items from each book. I thought the books were good too.

I have to note that I'm an editor, so our son had already encountered some of the concepts during our conversations with him.

DC said...

Many thanks. Nice titles.

Susan N said...

I came to the comment section to remind people about the Just So Stories, but @BobK99 had beaten me to it. When I was five "How the First Letter Was Written" and "How the Alphabet Was Made" were my favorite stories.

KateGladstone said...

It would be great to see something for children that explicitly addressed the linguistic issues relevant to spelling and punctuation: this would involve quite a bit of historical linguistics and phonology/phonetics (to deal with the complex relationships between the sounds we make and the letters/letter-groups we write them with). So far, everything I've seen given to kids in this regard (in school or elsewhere) is either fantasy (like the JUST SO STORIES) or is framed as if letters preceded & governed speech.
A very good book on linguistics for children, I think, COULD be written simply by detailing and exploding the numerous misconceptions that are tacitly accepted and disseminated in the following comic-strip: http://www.johnhartstudios.com/wizardofid/2014/04/thursday-april-17-2014.php

David Crosbie said...

That comic strip relies on knowledge of spelling, plus an appreciation of irony. Not exactly ideal for 'little ones'.

The problem for a potential author is understanding young children's understanding (if any) of matters metalinguistic and their attitude (if any) to language.

There are libraries full of studies of the forms of children''s language, and how they acquire and use them. But how much sociolinguistic study has there been of preferences and attitudes in language use?

All I can remember from when I was very small is some interest in what words mean. From primary days I can remember my mother's horror if ever I used a local (Nottingham) pronunciation of the STRUT vowel. Perhaps there's a readership for class-marked pronunciation issues in the infant school, but it would be a really niche market.

Years ago I heard tell of this alleged exchange:

CHILD 1: I've got a pen.
TEACHER: I've got a pen too.
CHILD 2: I've got a pen three.

The wordplay here doesn't relay on spelling knowledge or irony. My guess is that really young children might find this funny. If they do, there's a chance that they might be interested in the explanation of how the wordplay works.

DC said...

I have a few other examples like this one in my Language Play, in the chapter on early reading. And now I'm recalling the remarkable book by Ferreiro and Teberosky, Literacy Before Schooling, which explored young children's metalinguistic awareness. And also the LARR Test that John Downing and his associates produced for NFER-Nelson - Language Awareness and Reading Readiness. These are from the 1980s, but just as relevant today.

DC said...

I have a few other examples like this one in my Language Play, in the chapter on early reading. And now I'm recalling the remarkable book by Ferreiro and Teberosky, Literacy Before Schooling, which explored young children's metalinguistic awareness. And also the LARR Test that John Downing and his associates produced for NFER-Nelson - Language Awareness and Reading Readiness. These are from the 1980s, but just as relevant today.