A Marmite relationship

Watch one of the men in charge of a display of birds of prey! He strides around the ring, talking non-stop in an informative but colloquial style about the birds, while his colleague gets the birds to fly. As the speaker comes closer, the sound quality from his amplification system is a bit distorted. He is referring to one of the birds and – still walking and talking at speed – he comments that he has a ‘Marmite relationship’ with the bird which is out at that moment.

Through my mind flashes ‘you love it or you hate it’ and I presume he means that the  bird doesn’t like him as much as the other handler. The unknown toddler in front of me can’t be making anything of the commentary really. But Marmite – he knows that word! He exclaims like an echo ‘Marmite!’ as if he’s encountered an old friend.

I guess we are primed to pick out words we know and attempt to make sense of them! All the more reason to introduce children to words carefully and make sure they say them clearly, and know they can have hidden extra meanings sometimes!

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The cobbler’s children go unshod!

Don’t you love earwigging? Not in an unpleasant way – just overhearing because you can’t help it.

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Look, mummy, look!

Many of the children who fall behind with language development have immense problems with drawing inferences: from events, from pictures, from conversation and especially from text when they get to that stage.

It is delightful to observe children who do not have such problems commenting on things they see around them. The ‘comment’ might only be to point or look amazed, but very young children can be quick to appreciate there’s something ‘not quite right’. The little boy I saw pointing and telling his mum to look appeared to be about 3. What he had noticed as striking was a narrow, hilly street – looking like any other, with pavements and a roadway between – but half way down the Council had erected two posts in the roadway to stop it being used by cars. The child didn’t attempt to verbalise this quirky sight but he was clearly very satisfied by his mother understanding what he found surprising and making a suitable comment to acknowledge the oddity and explain the reason for it. He had inferred (at some level) that roads – to be any good as roads – should not have permanent obstructions blocking them.

I loved the look of astonishment on the face of an even younger child – no more than a toddler – in the park. He had made his way towards a shiny toy car, apparently left in the middle of the grass. He stretched out a finger tentatively to stroke it when all of a sudden it took off and drove at speed out of range! Why was he so amazed? Because, one assumes, he had already internalised the fact that toy cars should not move of their own accord. The young couple with the remote control who had been watching him with good humour laughed and made the car zoom around some more. Once the toddler had seen the couple and the ‘magic box’, he no longer seemed at all surprised.   He couldn’t have said what it was, but he seemed to accept there was an explanation after all.

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Keep speech simple too

It’s not just print that needs adapting – even talk can be confusing!

The words we use, the speed we go, the in-between time – all these will influence how much a child understands. Especially the child with delayed or impaired language development.

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Keeping text simple

It can’t be hard to make things simpler… can it?

Well, actually, it can be quite tricky. Creating or adapting resources for children with language impairment can take a long time. Not only that. After using the resources it may be necessary to revise the language if some counter-intuitive things come to light!

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Posted in Child language, Competence level, Grammar, Helping children understand, Promoting language development, Speech & Language Pathology, Speech & Language Therapy, Teaching | Tagged , , ,

Are you listening to me?

This is normally said in exasperation when a child has not jumped into action at the first time of telling.  It is often swiftly followed by I won’t tell you again… which may mean either I will tell you again (ad nauseam) or I will give you a slap!

So we expect children to listen to us – and to pick up on the many different ways we say things, together with interpreting the idioms, the hints, the sarcasm, the teasing, the facial expression and tone of voice. And we expect them to know we always talk sense, unless of course we’re talking nonsense on purpose as a game.

Sadly, however, adults often forget to extend the same trust towards children that they are talking sense – from their knowledge and viewpoint. So the adult may say or imply the child is talking rubbish because the adult forgot to extend the courtesy of trying to make sense of the child’s utterance.

1. Adult showing photo of large truck: What’s this?

Child (confidently): Bigwig.

Adult hasn’t seen the right TV show to interpret this as big rig and reacts as if child is talking nonsense.

2. Child: Why bus stopped?

Adult: More people are getting on.

Child: No bus-stop there.

Adult: We can’t see the bus-stop.   [It’s too near the side of the double-decker bus to be seen from the top deck.]

Long pause.

Child: Are there clear bus-stops?

Adult (puzzled): What? No.   [And does not think the child might have thought that the bus-stop can’t be seen because it’s clear like clear glass!]

If we as adults expect children to be saying something sensible, and take the blame if we don’t understand, then real communication may take place. If we don’t take the trouble to think What could this child be trying to express? then the opportunity will pass by (a) to gain insight into a child’s thought processes, and (b) to demonstrate understanding by making a sensible reply which may include a model of how it could have been said better.

Idioms are fairly confusing for children and foreigners alike!   These set phrases can’t be turned around or changed – that is proscribed by our linguistic rules.

Child: I didn’t see the squirrel.

Adult: You didn’t look properly.

Child: I did.   I peeled my eyes.

Adult: Oh well. Next time we’ll both keep our eyes peeled and we’ll be sure to see it.

(This helpful adult understood the child had attempted to use an idiom. Instead of saying You’ve got that wrong, the adult used the idiom correctly in her own speech – providing a modelled example.)

If you are involved with a child who tries to communicate but is very hard to follow, try to spend at least some time with pictures or a game where the content is in front of you both! The hardest remarks to understand are likely to occur when the child launches into a stream of talk including names and events you know nothing about. And the child nearly always knows you don’t understand when you make remarks pretending that you do!

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2-word and 3-word levels

It may not sound much but…

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