How Children Learn Vocabulary
Thoughts & Reflections
If you’ve ever been in a language class, you know how exciting and frustrating and brain-rewiring learning a new language can be. Arguably the best way to learn a language is total immersion, where the instructor rarely, if ever speaks in our native language, but instead is adept in repetition, careful acting-out, explanation of phrases and words through other methods than direct “gato means cat” methods.
It’s been described as how children learn language.
A-ha! A clue!
The whole world is new. Everything might as well be gibberish. We are the voice in those Peanuts cartoons, wah-wah wah-wah. Slowly, incrementally, a child makes connections. She’s using contextual clues, our patience and repetition, the logical brain seeking connections, to put Vocabulary to Meaning.
All language is arbitrary. We have collectively agreed to call this a fork, and this is how we use it, and yet, the only difference between using this object for bringing food to mouth and calling it a fork, and The Little Mermaid interpretation of a dinglehopper used for hair styling, is majority agreement.
The only difference between how we learn a new language, and how a child learns a language, is frustration.
We believe we SHOULD understand meaning. We’ve forgotten how to pay attention and decode using clues around us. Occasionally, a child might ask, “what does that mean?” but, more often than not, they’ll hear a new word, apply that word to a meaning, and then be able to use it appropriately in context.
It’s phenomenal. Sometimes we’re reminded of the “collective agreement” and trust aspects of language. We’ve had children tell us they’re “an Exbug at tying shoes” (expert), and had parents ask, “What’s Jevin and Kevin and cards?” (Geometry Cabinet and Cards, a material in the classroom).
“All language is arbitrary”
The children understood what we meant. These phrases have been mis-heard, and while Geometry Cabinet and Cards has a real meaning to me as an adult, since it carefully describes the material, but it’s still arbitrary. When you’re used to everything being new, it doesn’t matter that Exbug isn’t a real word — that’s what you heard, and you are indeed an expert in tying shoes, so you’re using what you heart appropriately. It’s just a note to me to articulate, to be sure to call someone an exPERT, or slowly ask a child to go get out the “ge-om-u-tree cab-nit and cards.”
When I said, “I noticed some debris on the floor. It will need to be tidied before we go outside,” the children looked around, saw Something on the floor, identified this as Debris, and knew just what to do. One got the broom, and we were promptly able to go outside.
“Ms. Wood! A Debris!” “There was some debris but I tidied it.” You’ve internalize this meaning. You can use it in a sentence. You don’t need me to describe it, or to tell you what that word means — that memorizing. You just Know. This is learning.
So don’t be afraid to use all your vocabulary words. Tell your child this is the penultimate book you’ll read, and then just read one more after it. If you eat a piece of unripe fruit, still scrunch up your face, but perhaps it was “unpleasant” rather than “yucky.” Perhaps after falling off the swings we need to put a bandaid on your “abrasion,” not your “owie.”
Children will embody everything that is present in their environment. Behaviors, words, all of it. We can provide rich language, and the dividends will be theirs.
Written by:Charlotte Wood