Dumbing Down Language For Kids

Millie Slavidou

Millie is a British writer and translator living and working in Greece. She writes about etymology on Jump! Mag and has published fiction for kids with Jump! Books

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How should we speak to our children? A question that comes up again and again. Should we use baby talk, words like din-dins for a meal and so on, when they are very small? Should we simplify matters during their childhood and avoid longer words and certain types of vocabulary that we regard as more advanced and therefore more complicated? Is one word enough to convey a meaning, or should we use synonyms? Does dumbing down language for kids help or hinder their development?

So many questions to consider. But let’s begin at the beginning. The question of baby talk is one that has been reported on numerous times in many newspapers. Experts, we are told, discourage its use. But what does this mean in practice?

Parents should avoid using nonsense words like din-dins, but should continue to speak in a raised tone and a sing-song voice to hold the attention of a baby or toddler. Repetition and clear enunciation of words are also important to help an infant to learn language. But nonsense words are to be discouraged. Why is this, you may wonder.

The point is that if you keep using din-dins with a baby to mean ‘meal’, then that child will learn that a meal is called ‘din-dins’. A child learns what you teach them, and if you use nonsense words, then that is what they will learn. This is true of toddlers and it is true of older children as well.

This brings us neatly on to our next point: should we avoid longer words and types of language that may be considered more advanced? The answer lies in what I have just pointed out with toddlers: they learn what we teach them. If we only use simplified language with children, then simplified language is what they will in turn be able to use themselves.

How are they supposed to learn vocabulary if they never hear it, never read it, if they are never exposed to it in any way? We learn language by using it, both actively and passively, but if we are never given a chance to use it, then that lesson will be less likely.

My eight-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter are both encouraged to read books with a wide range of vocabulary, and I have taught them both how to use a dictionary should the need arise. Not only that, but I also use an extensive variety of words with them myself. I also encourage them to find synonyms – a concept and a word with which they are entirely familiar.

They readily use terms such as ‘edible’ or its antonym at the table; they understand ‘extinguish’ in the context of fire. Just recently, on hearing a distant roll of thunder, which he described in precisely those terms, my son told me “that sounds ominous.” But perhaps the most amusing example of vocabulary use, at least to my mind, came from my daughter, who informed me that her baby cousin was “very placid”.

Children benefit from learning vocabulary, they benefit from being exposed to all forms of language. One word may indeed be enough to convey a simple meaning, but a range of synonyms can convey so much more: shades of meaning, nuance, and not just that.

They can also add colour to our speech, thereby enriching our lives, giving us more to wonder at in the world. If we have no word for something, we are less likely to think of it; the concept is less likely to occur to us. Therefore, the more words we have, the more our thought patterns can develop.

So, with all this in mind, why limit our children? Why restrict their imaginations by depriving them of the words that could feed them?

If we use simpler language, we may be making things easier for our children at that precise moment. And this may be true. But consider this: by dumbing things down, what we are actually doing is making it harder for them in the long term. We are ensuring that there are some things they will have to work harder to learn in the future, having always been kept in ignorance, and perhaps that they never will.

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