There is a genre of pre-school television that delights in using baby-talk back to babies. Do not do this. Most of the time here I offer up ideas – things you can try, possibilities to keep in mind to see what works for you. But on this, I have strong damn opinions. There is absolutely no point your kids watching programs where the characters talk using incorrect English. They have enough to learn without being actively led astray by hearing ungrammatical sentences and meaningless words. This is relevant for children aged around five and under; it becomes less of a problem as they grow older and more proficient with spoken language.
The research background for this comes from Bruner, as described in and Grayson (2004). He describes children learning by copying, particularly their mother in familiar social routines. Words are initially context-bound – they are only used in on particular circumstance. A child might say ‘teddy’ only to refer to one teddy, not bears in general. Because of the importance of imitation in early language development, it’s important they copy correct language.
Strangely, and tragically, this means that even banal YouTube Videos and epilepsy-inducing cartoons offer more education than programs carefully crafted to make them appeal to youngsters. Don’t mistake me – young kids will get almost nothing from those videos either. The speech will be too fast, with too many advanced phrases but it is, at least, English.
From a parent’s point of view, it looks incredibly cute, or at least harmless, to use babyish language, but educationally it’s a waste of time. Lots of early language use is copying and repeating, so if they hear “Lau Lau make beautiful pot?” then that’s what they’ll say. On the BBC, In the Night Garden and Waybuloo are two examples I came across. If you don’t know what ‘Cheebies’, ‘Ninky nonks’ and ‘Piplings’ are then what chance does your four-year-old have? Turn it off and find something else. There are lots of lovely programmes with proper English to learn from. (To save you googling, Cheebies are the kids in Waybuloo, who play with computer-generated characters calls Piplings. The Ninky nonk is the train thing from In the Night Garden)
There are two different issues with these examples. One is useless vocabulary, usually nouns which only have meaning within that program. That’s bad but won’t cause a general issue, they just won’t have cause to talk about ‘Ninky nonks’ much in later life. (Unless they write a blog about communication in children’s television, that is.) Far more problematic is incorrect grammar, which they could use in many other sentences if they hear it enough and copy it.
It’s very hard to simplify language to the level that children can understand. To go back to the awful “Lau Lau make beautiful pot?” example from Waybuloo, that fails on a second level because it adds the unnecessary word “beautiful”. That makes understanding harder without adding much meaning, so long as the pot is displayed prominently on screen. So while using correct English is vital, so is stressing the right components of it:
“did LAU LAU MAKE the POT?”
English itself is complicated and requires you to add the verb ‘did’ for no good reason, which isn’t the case in other languages. You must include it, but you don’t have to stress it. The definite article doesn’t add much either. The important concepts are Lau Lau, the pot, and the question of whether she made it. So stress those.
It’s a real shame their language is unhelpful, because in other ways the programs I’ve single out for criticism here, Waybuloo and In the Night Garden, do an excellent job of communication. They are full of repetition, for instance, and use beautifully simple images, with only a few objects on screen at a time. They (generally) use simple words and short sentences and obviously tell small stories. They refer to objects viewers can see, to give concrete examples. Unfortunately, those words are only useful within the program.
For a better example of communication, Peppa Pig has similarly simple images and stories. There is less repetition and its language is more advanced, with complete sentences and dialogue, but it is grammatically correct.
When they’re a little older and have a firm grasp of basic grammar and language, then I’m a big fan of books about palantíri, dryads and disapparating. I’m not saying language should be frozen in place with everyone forced to speak the Queen’s English. I am totally down with dialects and technical vocabulary and slang – but only when you’ve learnt the rules, so you can see how they’re being broken.
Look out for nonsense and baby talk in your children’s programs and steer them away. There are lots of alternatives with simple, understandable language which they’ll learn more from.