Why it’s best not to use babyish language with young children
One of my many favourite topics when talking about Child Development is the best type of language to use with your children to encourage their holistic progression, and equip them for future success. The main reason I am so passionate about this particular topic is because I do hear a lot of, please excuse the expression, “babyish language” being used with children, or incorrect information being given as it would appear that the adult believes that the child would not be able to understand the true explanation. Well I would really like to take this opportunity to dispel those myths and put forward exactly why it is absolutely necessary to use the correct language with young children.
The type of language I am referring to with the expression “babyish language” is the either the “dumbed-down” tone of the adults voice, or the words being used; often you hear them both together and I have to say – it makes me cringe because I know exactly how switch on children really are. To give you a few example of what I mean; I’ve often heard parents say, “Shall we go a feed the quack quacks?” – They’re not called quack quacks, they are called ducks! Very little children will often say the sound the animal makes before they can actually say the name of the animal. So what I would recommend to say here is; “Yes that’s the sound they make and they’re called ducks”. This way you are reinforcing exactly what the child was right about, whilst still also positively providing them with the correct information. So there is no need to say anything negative, and you are helping your child to learn the correct language quicker and without any pressure. Think about it – how else will the child learn to say “duck” if it’s never role-modelled to them?
I’ve also heard children being spoken to in a cringingly babyish voice tone. They may be miniature – they are still intelligent human-beings. If you think about it, first of all a very “dumbed-down” voice tone actually makes it more difficult for the child to understand what you are saying, (believe me, the most babyish voice tones I’ve heard, I could barely understand what was being said myself)! This in turn is likely to delay their speech and may well mean that they mispronounce certain words. – How can you expect them to pronounce words properly when they’re not hearing the correct pronunciation!! Secondly, a very “dumb-down” voice tone is actually tantamount to speaking down to children because; how would you feel if someone spoke to you in the same tone? Does it make it acceptable to speak to children like that purely because they’re babies/ young children? As an Expert I say definitely not! With very young babies it ok to speak more slowly and clearly with a slightly higher intonation, as this enable them to hear you more clearly. Otherwise just speak in a slightly slower, clearer way than you would normally, (if you’re a quick talker like I can be!) so the child can hear as much of what you are saying as possible and see how you move your mouth etc. to say it.
Also, when your voice tone is always the same it’s harder for the child to understand what you mean. Let me explain; the way babies and young children actually learn language is through observing your body language and facial expression when you are speaking to them. Plus also differentiating voice tones help give clues to the meaning of what you are saying. For example, a happy/ praising voice tone is going to be different to a firm/ warning voice tone giving the child a distinct clue as to what is being communicated. Believe me it’s fascinating to observe how voice tone alone enables babies to learn what you’re saying a lot more quickly and easily. Therefore, can you see how using the same “dumbed-down” tone all the time will makes it far more difficult for the child to grasp the meaning of what is being said to them? It’s also worth noting here that delaying a child’s understanding of language will also delay their intellectual and social development too. This is because more rapid progression in these two areas of development requires good communication skills.
I’m actually going to give a few examples of exactly how intelligent babies/ toddlers and young children are so you can see exactly why it is important to always use the correctly language and a clear voice tone with them. Please note that I am going to change the names of the children in the examples to ensure strict confidentiality.
Bella aged 4.5 at the time, was looking at a book on dinosaurs. I asked her what the name was of the dinosaur she was looking at. She replied in perfect pronunciation; “A Carcharodontosaurus” – no word of a lie! For anyone who does know, carcharodontosaurus means “shark-tooth”; this was a predatory dinosaur that grew up to “43 feet” and weighted up to “15 metric tons”. It existed “between 100 and 93 million years ago, during the mid-Cretaceous Period.” (Info derived from Wikipedia). Bella knew that carcharodontosaurus meant shark-tooth. Now how could she have learnt this if adults around her had decided it was too advanced for her and therefore simplified everything? She is actually very popular with both girls and boys at school because she comes out with a lot of interesting facts. Being someone interested in nature and a bit of a culture-vulture myself, I’ve had many conversations with Bella about very interesting facts. Hence, helping her to become very articulate and get ahead both socially and intellectually.
William, aged 5 years recently told me that “concentrate” is another word for “focus”. He has pointed out to me the types of activities that require good focus. In addition to William being a very articulate child, he is also learning vocabulary that will subconsciously set him up for success. Any high achiever will tell you that being successful requires dedication and focus. Well William is already learning the importance of good focus without even realising it!!
Emily aged 2.5 years was having a bit of a wobbly after being told “no” to something. After ensuring she was safe and couldn’t hurt herself I informed her that I was just going to get something done (NB in the same room – I didn’t obviously leave her). After a few minutes I said to her; “You’re not happy are you whilst you’re making such a fuss?” She agreed with me that she was presently not feeling happy. Then I put to her; “That doesn’t seem like a sensible choice to choose to be unhappy. Why don’t you make a choice to do something that makes you feel happy?” Emily stopped fussing and looked at me curiously. She then said; “Oh yes” and went to get out the play-dough, (NB kept at her level). Very soon into doing play-dough Emily informed me that she was feeling happy. Now who would have thought about speaking to a 2.5 year old in such a grown-up manner? The vast majority of people would see this as way to advanced for a child this young. I prefer to “test” and see exactly how intelligent they are. Please note here that if you make sure you really “know” the child – you know what they’re likely to be capable of understanding. Something resonated with Emily and she appeared to realise that it was her own choice causing her to be unhappy, thus she made a different choice! This is extremely valuable to encourage children to realise that you actually have a choice, even when you think you don’t. The most holistically successful people will tell you that even in their lowest ebb, they would ensure to still exercise their power of choice (NB One of the most important times to ensure you are in the driver seat is when things aren’t going so well!). Emily has helped me to learn that even very young children can begin to grasp this concept.
Just to mention briefly a bit about multi-lingual children. Marie was between 12 and 24 months when I worked with her. Her mother spoke to her in French, her father spoke to her in German and I spoke to her in English. I spoke to her all the time about what was going on around her. Told her the names, shapes and colours of things, (NB the lady who ran the local music group was impressed at how she knew all her colours by 21 months). I also read lots of books. When her attention initially appeared to wane, I just red with increased expression and her focus would naturally return. Marie could focus very well and had an unusually long attention span when listening to books and stories read by me. I believe this developed as a result of reading stories in an expressive way that captured her interest. – I didn’t just give up and decide she was too young. I found a way of captivating her interest. Three guesses which language she was best at when I worked with her?! So even multi-lingual children are able to pick up language much more easily and quicker despite having more than one language to learn!
One final interesting point I would like to include is a plea to never use “ta” with little ones! To me it doesn’t make sense to teach “ta” when they’re very little and “thank-you” when you feel they’re old enough to cope with it. If you think about it, this doesn’t show any faith in your expectations of their capabilities. The way children learn to believe in themselves is through their parents demonstrating belief in them. I’ve always used “thank-you” with every child I’ve worked with. Emily, at 18 months was able to say; “thank-yoooou” (sweet!). Also Marie at a similar age said; “Tagoo” (very endearing!). This was their version of “Thank-you” and I always role-modelled the correct English back to them. It is also very important if you go to baby signing classes to always role-model the correct spoken language whilst using signing. If a 4.5 year old can learn, “Carcharodontosaurus”, a younger toddler is capable of learning “Thank-you”! Emily and Marie have definitely proven that to me. Plus Marie also had to learn “Merci” and “Dankeschön”.
In conclusion I would say that this all demonstrates that it’s essentially all down to the quality of the language being spoken to the child that will determine how well they speak and how quickly they will learn. If you speak well, then they will learn to speak well and if you speak “babyishly”, or in grammatically poor sentences, then that is what they’ll learn. Doctor Silvana Montanaro in her book, Understanding the Human Being, in Chapter 7 (pp 75-88) about The Brain’s Potential and the Absorbent Mind, also observed this point in her analogy of the mind to a computer. So please speak to babies and children clearly, using the correct terminology, not only will they learn language quicker and more easily, you also set them up to get ahead both intellectually and socially too. So see what great conversations you can have with your little one(s). Also finally please note, if you have a child who doesn’t speak so quickly, if they have no hearing problems, it may be because they do not yet have the vocabulary to say what’s in their mind. Einstein didn’t speak until he was 4!
For more information please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Twitter/ Instagram @FamilyTeamCoach, Facebook/ LinkedIn, as Paula-Elizabeth Jordan, thank-you. 🙂
Paula-Elizabeth Jordan is a Montessori trained Child-Development Expert who’s passionate about helping “Family Teams” work together for the benefit of each other, as this is how successful, well-balanced, happy children are raised. She has been Montessori trained for over ten years now and also has a degree in Theology with an Art minor. She is presently writing her own book entitled; “How to Bring up A Successful Human-Being”. www.paulaelizabeth.com