Acquiring language


The question of how children acquire language—and how they learn in general—continues to perplex the teaching profession. Today, there is a fashion for discovering learning styles and even trying to produce learning systems: vain quests if—as seems—the reality is too complex to permit tabulation. Yet the question remains in the minds of teachers, not least in the Classics department, where language and memory are paramount.

It seems that a child first learns language mainly from adults, but then at playgroup and school begins also to acquire language from peers, and starts to speak in more than one register. Dot Wordsworth in The Spectator (11th February 2012):

‘Register in language is not mentioned in old-fashioned grammars. It entails differences in vocabulary, pronunciation and even tonality, according to circumstances… Children master register untaught. The language of the playground is quite different from that of the family circle, and different again from that of church or the job interview.’

Reading involves initiation into further registers—and the acquiring of words for a child’s passive vocabulary: that stock of words which (s)he will not be likely to use but knows their meaning.

In my training days I taught in a selective school where many of the children were unfamiliar with books. For a summer holiday task I asked some 16-year-olds to read E.V.Rieu’s translation of the Odyssey, published in 1946, the first of the Penguin Classics—a racy and popular rendering. One boy returned in September apologetic that he had not managed to get very far with it. “I didn’t realise it would be in Old English,” he explained.

“Have you read many books?” I asked.

“No, not really,” he replied. “We don’t have any books at home. No”—he corrected himself—“we have one. It’s about refrigerators.”

It is for children like this that reading aloud (see earlier posts) is so valuable. By enunciating the words they can enter the new register and make it their own.

Next post: Writing: Carolingian minuscules, etc.

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