Essay: Raising Bookish Kids

“Mom, Anthony threw my ball off the balcony again.  All of these ghastly things keep happening!”

My four-year-old Christopher had heard the word “ghastly” in Narnia, or Paddington, or 101 Dalmations, and didn’t know it was unusual for an American child to say it.  But the fact that these surprising terms show up in his conversation doesn’t mean he’s destined to alienate himself from his peers.  It merely shows the blistering rate at which small children absorb language.  We only notice the odd words, but our kids learn and experiment with new words all the time.

Language acquisition is an innate ability that everyone is born with.  The linguist Noam Chomsky attempted to describe it by positing his famous concept of Universal Grammar, the idea that we are born with a set of rules preprogrammed in our brains to interpret and master language.  Studies show that babbling infants learn quickly to babble only the sounds used in the language(s) spoken around them.  As they grow, their brain takes in all the language they hear, fits this data into a universal set of rules, and fills in gaps of what has not been supplied.  At age two most kids use only about 100-400 words and have minimal sentence-construction abilities, but by age six their vocabulary is around 14,000 and grammar is near adult competence.  By preadolescence, vocabulary reaches about 50,000 words and the natural language-learning ability wanes.   (This is why transnational children often speak a second language better than their parents, even if they only speak the second language with their parents — they started younger, during their language-absorption phase.)

Small children cheerfully soak up all the words they hear, from “ghastly” to the F-bomb dropped by a teenager on the playground.  Then they try out those words in varying contexts.  If they are multilingual, they learn which people understand which languages, and how to use different vocabularies with different groups of people.  There are church words and store words and teacher words and playground words, and they sort them all out into their separate sets.  They do this without even trying.

For some reason this ability doesn’t work when language is separated from its natural context.  Playing French CD’s in the baby’s room is unlikely to teach the baby French.  Even television in another language doesn’t seem to promote second-language learning.  But well-written stories that a child understands can provide higher-level language, in a real-life context, that the listener or reader would not otherwise be exposed to.

Still, an expanded vocabulary is only a side benefit of the right kind of bookish life.  Listening to great stories expands readers’ knowledge of the world, opening new circles of influence and engagement.  More importantly, listening to stories that shape godly character and build a biblical worldview will prepare our kids to not only relate to their peers, but to exert leadership among them.  Our kids have the potential to be the next generation’s thinkers, leaders and heroes.  If this is what we want, we ought to nurture them on stories of thinkers, leaders, and heroes, and let them follow those examples.  If they pick up a few interesting words along the way, so much the better.

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Publication Information: Gonzalez, Shanna. Raising Bookish Kids. . .
Categories: Essays

Posted on April 30, 2010

1 Response to Essay: Raising Bookish Kids

  • joan Ripley says:

    What an inspirational essay Shanna. It inspired me to take courage and read books to my younger grandchildren with more advanced vocabulary.

    Grateful for you,

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