abc_baby_speak_090217_mn“Mama, I really like your necklace. It’s so dainty!”

Dainty? Dainty? ! Where on Earth did that come from? My daughter, then aged about 2, uttered that gem à propos nothing at all, and I would swear on all that I hold dear to me that I have never used that word in front of her. Of course, despite the fact that I am her mother and therefore should be her only source of inspiration and worship, I’m sure she listens to the world around her and picks things up accordingly. But some things seem so unlikely. When was the last time YOU used the word ‘dainty’? Exactly!!

I love it. It’s one of the million things I love about having small people around me, that I would never have thought of before said small people turned up. Of course, it makes me oh so aware of how careful I have to be now with what I say in front of both my kidlets- even the 1-year old I can see thinking about what I have said to him and storing it up to be gurgled back at me when I least expect it. And (my husband will back me up on this one), I find it really hard to temper my language. I’m having to re-learn all the euphemisms that I used when in school in order to avoid saying things I will regret down the line, when the f-bomb is repeated back to me with a cheeky smile.

Bud how do our children actually learn new words? Vocabulary is commonly defined as “all the words known and used by a particular person”. Knowing a word, however, is not as simple as simply being able to recognize or use it. There are several aspects of word knowledge which are used to measure vocabulary, including the fact that much of our lexis is receptive– IE we know the word if we hear it, but would not use it in a sentence ourselves.

During infancy, a child instinctively builds a vocabulary. Infants imitate words that they hear and then associate those words with objects and actions. This is their listening or receptive vocabulary. Their speaking vocabulary follows, as a child’s thoughts become more reliant on his/her ability to self-express without relying on gestures or babbling. Once the reading and writing vocabularies start to develop, through questions and education, the child starts to discover the anomalies and irregularities of language.

The common-sense belief is that a child learns a new word by associating the word with a visible object. So the mother points to a train and says Look! Train! The child associates the word with the object it is looking at. Next time they see it, the child can say train, to their parents’ delight. In some sense this explanation must be true. Words in our minds are linked to visible objects and events in the world. But this doesn’t work with things that cannot be seen; I know that – how do you point to an action of knowing? How do you see the object known as air?

Philosophers have pointed out a logical problem with associating words with things by pointing to them and naming them: that many words could be related to one physical thing, and 3 different people could come up with 3 different words for the one physical object they were looking at. Most of the things in the world have many features. A tennis ball has a colour (yellow), a material (rubber), a shape (a sphere), a purpose (it’s for tennis), an age (new or worn-out), and other characteristics (bouncy, breaks windows, etc). If someone who spoke another language pointed to a tennis ball and said Quasti, how would you know which of these attributes they actually meant? It could be the name for the ball, it could be the colour, it could be anything else at all the speaker wanted to say.

A child therefore has to work out which aspect of the world goes with the word. The world is not conveniently divided up into objects with single features. Naming means being able to sort out which aspect of a thing is being named. Amazingly, children manage to do this, as we can see through the development of language in a 2- 3 year old.

 Wilkins (1972) once said,” Without grammar, very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary, nothing can be conveyed.” As an adult we have an amazingly large vocabulary- of somewhere in the region of 40,000 words (although this is a hazy guess at best- the psychologist Paul Bloom estimates that 17-year-olds know 60,000 actual words, whereas the research site estimates more conservatively at 20 – 35,000 words). Throughout our lives we are continually learning new words, but it becomes easier for us one we are able to question and compare with other words or ideas we already know. We read, we watch TV, we come across new things a lot, and our brain stores up things it thinks might be useful.

Children produce amazing sentences, when we least expect it. They replicate the world around them, and imitate as much as they can. So where did ‘dainty’ come from? A book? An overheard conversation? – Possibly. I’ll never know. but I don’t care- as long as she keeps saying it!