Language Preference in Childhood

Learning a language involves selection and de-skilling. We think that we are teaching our children to speak when we repeat phrases to them slowly, when we withhold a prized object until they articulate the right word, when we prompt them to repeat courtesy formulas such as “Thank you.” In a sense, of course, this is true. Nonetheless, when you consider that babies are born with the ability to produce all the sounds that occur in all the human languages, we are actually de-skilling them: teaching them to pay attention to some sounds and ignore others. By the time they are seven, these children will begin to lose this linguistic aptitude altogether, and by the time they are 12, they will probably never get the pronunciation of a foreign language quite right.

Just as children speak the languages spoken around them, so do they speak the dialects that they hear in their home environment. Both dialects and languages tend to “stick” when they are associated with strong emotion. A linguist once told me about a six-year-old who in a feverish state began to speak in Latin. Consultation confirmed that the child was reciting the prayers for the sick and dying, which he had heard when his mother’s life was endangered. . . shortly before his birth! Likewise, a little boy who stayed home with his Scots grandfather while everyone else went off to work, learned to speak with a Scottish accent, as well as in the raspy voice characteristic of his granddad.

A three-year-old is able to distinguish sociolects, and is probably clever enough to consciously choose among them. Think of the three-year old who answers the telephone and, having forgotten to ask “Who is calling,” informs: It sounded like your friend so-and-so who comes on vacation from Chihuahua. Or, “It sounds like the man at the market.” Or, “Like your friend from Brazil.”

Children often reject one language and prefer another, often preferring to “fit in” by speaking only whatever the national tongue happens to be. And children do the same with dialects, choosing what seems to have the greater prestige, though more often—especially if they are small—it is the dialect spoken by those they love best. However, I once met an American boy who had decided to be a vegetarian, carry an umbrella, and speak with a British accent—an authentic one, peculiar to a specific city! But he was 12, and already becoming a rugged individual. A caveat: most 12-year-olds only yearn to be like their friends, and balk at learning foreign languages.

We are often quick to defend a language on the grounds that it is a unique cultural vessel worthy of preservation. Such is the case of Basque, or of the Indian languages of Mexico. We quite rightly do so since Nahuatl, for example, provides a world view in which “garbage” finds no place. While there is a word for “cuttings”—plant material pruned or otherwise cut down—everything else is used until it disappears. A shirt becomes a diaper, and then a cleaning cloth, and then is ground into the soil where it decomposes. A chair becomes a stick, perhaps to fix another chair, or for a stake, or for firewood. A piece of slightly rotten tomato is snapped up by a passing chicken. The cuttings return to nature in a similar way. Nahuatl contains an ecologically sound world view.

The dialects of language—Ebonics, tepiteño—are not so often defended. They may be celebrated in jokes for their novelty or ingenuity, but probably not as a unique cultural expression, and much less as a form of expression on a par with the standard dialect heard, for example, on national TV. From an academic point of view, it’s no accident that some universities have a “Department of Languages and Dialects”: languages and dialects are determined by degrees of difference. Most children in the world–surprisingly for essentially monolingual nations like the US– grow up in multi-lingual milieus. However, even American children often grow up in multi-dialectal environments. And like multi-linguals, they learn to discriminate, to reproduce and to choose from what they hear spoken around them. More the next time.

Image courtesy of [bugtiger] /