Recently, I saw something very interesting modelled in an article by E.D. Hirsch, whereby the reader was ‘taught’ a new word. The teaching was entirely through accurate, contextual use of that unfamiliar word. It was sublimely done; to fully grasp the meaning from the first use, the reader would have needed a certain level of familiarity with the knowledge domain of the engineer or scientist. Progressively, the reader was re-exposed to the new word in contexts that required less and less specialist background knowledge. The final use grounded the word in an everyday and familiar context. There was a distinct aggregation of understanding.
The first thing that struck me was that in a truly naturalistic model, exposure to unfamiliar words rarely happens in such a structured way. So I tried to forget what I had just learned, and set about reading the sentences in reverse order. My sense was that even in the most familiar of the contexts, my understanding would have been incomplete. In other words, complete understanding was enhanced by exposure to the word in the less familiar contexts.
This strikes me as being rather similar to the way that we construct jigsaws in the real world. Rather than patiently building it up row by row, jigsaws build slowly, coalescing around multiple nuclei, with edges developing gradually to frame and define positions for these nuclei. Some pieces are harder to place than others, often pieces are found as much by chance as deliberate action. Assuming all the pieces are in the box, it should be possible to complete the jigsaw.
No metaphor is perfect, but I quite liked the overall fit of this one, because it presupposes that the component pieces are made available. More simply, if some unkind person were to remove and hide some of the pieces, completing the jigsaw becomes impossible.
Which is why I haver never approved of child-speak. If children understand the specifics of every word we say to them and every word they encounter in text, we are hiding some of the jigsaw pieces from them. We are actively holding them back. At this point, I’d like to focus on talk and put aside text; reading has its own set of preconditions and challenges.
Most people, most of the time, use a relatively narrow core vocabulary. This serves us fairly well in most circumstances. It also makes it likely that most of what you say, if expressed clearly, will be understood by others who speak the same language. Anyone with children or dogs will perhaps agree that failures of understanding, as often as not, have their roots in failed listening!
The promotion of child-speak, viewed in this context, has unfortunate shades of Orwell’s Newspeak, however well-intentioned the conception or implementation. The negative impact must be felt most keenly by those lacking ‘contextual compensation’ – shorthand for the kids who don’t live in a domain of literacy immersion, and they’re probably quite easy to identify.
Proponents of child-speak also ignore something very important. When we match our words to their spoken vocabulary, we fail to provide additional context for those unfamiliar words they have previously heard. Child speak militates against potential.
This isn’t a call for tautology, nor is it a call for the unnecessary over ornamentation of spoken language. It is a call for us to act with a little more ambition, a little less condescension, and embed challenge in the very words we use. The child who doesn’t understand all of the words they’ve heard always has the option to ask for clarication, but even if they don’t, exposure gives them a fighting chance of understanding it the next time.