Since Hurricane Sandy hit our area, I have had the privilege of having the most amazing conversations with children. Children of all ages, from 2 ½ years old through high school, have described to me what they lived through, witnessed and heard about from the adults around them. Even the youngest children have been talking about when their lights were out, the strong winds and downed trees. I have watched adults talk to children about the events of the past few weeks with sensitivity and intelligence. I wonder why we don’t speak to children like this more often.
Babyish voices, simple words and sing song intonations do not help our children learn the conventions of our language. Children learn a great deal through imitation. Language is imitated from the time they are babies. Their babbling is an imitation of the rhythm of the language they hear being used around them. As they get older and learn words, they learn the words we give to them. We spend a great deal of time on the basics. There is more to giving language to children.
Every language has a rhythm and beat. Singing and listening to music is one of the foundations for future literacy. Through music, children begin to learn to imitate that which will become the rhythm and beat of oral and written language. We sing songs and are so proud when very young children sing them. Music is fun and sets the foundation for imitation of language. That ability to imitate needs to be taken to the next step. They need to have us speak to them in the real rhythm of our language and not an exaggerated, sing-song version. They need to feel confident when conversing with others and that confidence comes, in part, from sounding like the adults they hear conversing with each other. Language should bring them into our world and not set them apart.
We also need to be consciously expanding their vocabularies. Consider the number of words we use to describe their emotions. Most people default to merely five words – happy, sad, mad, scared and upset. There are many degrees of those emotions. Young children can learn the difference between being happy, joyful and ecstatic. They can be scared, afraid or terrified. Sometimes it is appropriate to describe how they are feeling by saying mad and sometimes furious is more accurate. Imagine having only five words to describe the range of emotions that you feel on a daily basis. It is no wonder that children get frustrated by trying to describe their feelings.
Expanding vocabulary includes using alternative words for objects as well as emotions. Each year, most preschools spend time doing activities about cars, boats, buses, trains and airplanes. We sing cute songs about transportation. It is nice to know that boats go in water and airplanes fly. It would also be great for the children to know that to transport means to move something from one place to another. There are many shades of colors and many shapes beyond the basics. While talking to young children, use synonyms for the words they are used to hearing. You will be amazed at how much they can understand from new words in familiar context.
I am not a fan of the nonsense words in some popular children’s books nor am I a fan of the speech patterns of many popular puppets and cartoon characters. I do, however, enjoy when a young child runs up to me and declares, “I am ecstatic today” or when children in the midst of pretend have intelligent exchanges filled with descriptive language about their imaginary world. Those are the children who will find magic in language as they learn to read and write.