Talking up to children

The TV show The Apprentice last week featured both teams writing books for children and then attempting to sell as many copies of these as they could. One team had three or so words which were outside the vocabulary of most kids of their target age. Stock buyers at the biggest book store in London expressed concern at this, as though challenging kids with words they didn’t immediately recognise is a bad thing.

I couldn’t help but contrast this with the prevailing attitude of my formative years and also with what I learnt some time ago about language acquisition, as a linguist myself.

One of the key ways we learn vocabulary in our own mother tongue and in foreign languages is by hearing words we don’t recognise in context with other words. How somebody who doesn’t grasp this is charged with sourcing suitable books and buying stock for London’s biggest book store is truly shocking.

Our youngest (aged 7) is currently reading Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. You will already have gathered that some of the vocabulary is beyond him. He loves the book. Last night he was reading to me from an English translation of Wilhelm Busch’s German classic children’s book, Max and Moritz, which uses words and expressions completely alien to a modern child, even using a borrowed French word in the line “Are our Max and Mo’ perdu?”

This reluctance to patronise children didn’t used to be confined to the written word either. By way of demonstration, see if you can spot the source of this…

“This calm, serene, orb, sailing majestically among the myriad stars of the firmament.”*

Homer? Confucius?

Nope. All from the pen of the creator, writer, and narrator of Bagpuss, The Clangers, Pogle’s Wood, and Ivor the Engine; the late, great, Oliver Postgate.

I grew up watching his work from the time before I could crawl. He didn’t do “dumbing-down” and a generation of my contemporaries are all the better for it. Children born now are no less intelligent than children of my generation were. Unfortunately, some of those overseeing their education in key positions of influence appear to be.

*https://youtu.be/Ok6CoIwcJ-E?t=45s