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Passing sentence – hard labour


So they don’t speak in sentences anymore! So trumpets a headline in a recent press report.

Apparently there is anecdotal evidence that young people are entering school and not speaking in sentences. Let’s accept for the sake of argument that those making this assertion are in a position to make such a judgment. What’s the explanation?

Well the immediate response is to lay the blame at the feet of electronic devices and media.

There might be an element of truth in this but it is not likely that the actions of little ones with their cute iPads or toy smart phones bring such a factor into consideration but the actions of their parents. Walk along any city street, or through a shopping mall or anywhere that grown up and especially young parents congregate with children and you will see the many adults giving closer attention to their texts and messages and whatever on their devices than they are to quality interaction with their children. One can only imagine that the situation is even worse at home where presumably the children are in a environment that requires even less attention from the parent.

Children develop language through a variety of factors. They arrive at the task with an innate desire to communicate through their eyes and their ears. They start with sound, move onto words and then proceed to put words together. They pick up patterns and rules and this process shows sometimes in the “mistakes” they make. “I for-nearly-got to put my underpants on,” said my son one morning. “I cutted my finger.”

They are acute observers of such patterns as emerge from the language they hear. Again, my son when told that we were going to go and see Granddad asked the question “Which one? ‘Golly Gosh’ or ‘Crikey Dick’?” He had observed that each grandfather had their own particular exclamation that they used and probably in fairly identical situations. Don’t underestimate the power of the young person when it comes to language learning.

In fact, the world’s population actually manage to learn their language to varying degrees without the help of schools, often in states of poverty and hunger, regardless of culture or faith. In fact one applied linguist claimed that it wasn’t learning language that was hard, but learning it in classrooms. Most young learners achieve excellent levels of language use with knowing a stick of grammar. Knowledge of grammar is useful for the most elegant and sophisticated uses of the language and is best learned when comparisons between language are possible. A child learning Maori and English will at an early age understand that a Maori sentence is different from an English sentence even if they couldn’t give you a definition of a sentence.

And here are some tips.

Grow the young person’s vocabulary – the number of words a learner can use with confidence will be the factor that identifies them as an advanced language learner or one that is catching up or lingering behind their peers. Words are the fuel of language. How many of us travel to foreign lands and get by with single words garbled because our ears aren’t up to it. Young people thrive in a situation where they are surrounded by real people who use lots of real words in real situations.

But this is not an invitation for parents to take over the talk. Janet Holmes tells the apocryphal story of the three year old who never uttered a word until one day at the dinner table she said “Would you please pass the salt?” An astonished parent sought an explanation as to why she had been silent until now to which she responded “Everything has been OK up till now!” Sit in a café and hear the parents taking over the responsibility for talking – usually in the third person. “Now, does Tommy want a muffin or a brioche? Mummy is going to have a brioche? I think Tommy would prefer a muffin? That’s what we will have today.” Child thinks: “Won’t be long and she will be back on to the iPhone!”

So children need to be surrounded by quality speakers of the language. Consider the impact on the development of young one’s when Celebrity A speaks on TV “Yeah, well, definitely – awesome, I mean to say – at the end of the day, well, brilliant!” Spot the sentence on that gob-full.

Finally, be relaxed about the young ones. The silent ones who don’t talk early will talk later (check for hearing issues though!) and they will use language at about the same level of sophistication as the early chatterers. And remember that talking is thinking. A silent brain is not an inactive brain. Children hear more than they appear to listen.

Vygotsky, the great Russian psycho-linguist, reminded us that “thoughts are not merely made up of words but come into being through them.” He uses the anecdote of the young boy who when challenged about something he had said replied “How do I know what I think till I see what I’ve said?”

It is very likely too early to predict that children are mutating into some kind of non-sentence-using little creatures. But do pay attention to the language environment in which they swim. It is probably the most important part of the child development eco-system.


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