In Praise of Big Words

I’ve been thinking lately about the anti-intellectualism that has become so present in our social and political culture in the west, and the ways in which it can disallow our children from becoming articulate. Even the word ‘articulate’ can sound like it carries a certain kind of smugness we might want to avoid, but I truly think that articulateness is important and should not be undervalued.

The suggestion of course made by much children’s programming and literature today, and in how adults talk to children in general, is that language must be brought down for children to understand it. This includes the implicit understanding that the acquisition of language is a rational process more than anything else.

What I have found is that even when young children don’t intellectually understand more complex words, they can be joyfully exposed to the innate rhythms, cadences, and musicality of language – sometimes specifically when we introduce things to them which may seem a bit “above their level”. Surely a large part of literacy lies in being able to get inside a language and make it sing. Young children are amazing at doing this, and often can (as so many of us know) be the most natural poets!

Dr. Seuss books, as a lot of older popular children’s books, can be great for the kind of exposure to language I’m talking about. These books tell great, original and wacky stories that kids can easily understand, while also using words that provide some of the bedrock for eventual greater literacy (even when those words are not yet intellectually understood). One of the current favourites of some of the three-year-olds I work with is The 500 hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, which tells a story that they find truly captivating – even though the author uses more advanced words such as “procession” and “astonishment”, amongst others.

With so much children’s literature, television, movies, and music that speaks down to children, we would do well indeed to remember that one of the foundations of literacy lies in an immersion in language that is not intentionally constrained or dumbed down, and rather which is demonstrated as something with a complex and beautiful life of its own. Playing with language is also generally, as already suggested, hugely fun for children, and is listed as one of the sixteen play types (communicative play).

Exposure to new language, be it real or made up, seemingly simple or more complex, has incredible benefits for children of all ages. When children are exposed to the fuller rhythms and cadences of their language(s), they may more easily become articulate members of their communities. Children, in this, may more easily come to express themselves, in their developing lives, in a manner which is more fully imaginative (the imagination being where the intellect and emotions meet, in creativity).

We would do well to remember that, as Northrop Frye suggests, “a democracy cannot function without articulate citizens”. And we would do well, I believe, to remember that early exposure to articulate language may lay the foundation for the development of the kinds of citizens we will surely need in the future.




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