Children Follow Adults’ Lead in Speaking

Terrence Moore

December 1, 2003

Children begin learning long before going to school. Whereas many students do not enter kindergarten knowing how to read, they invariably know how to say and understand basic things in their native language. While at school their minds take in more than just the lesson at hand, particularly in the way of language. The question is how much of the language they learn in their early years.

The great classical teacher of rhetoric, Quintilian, placed an enormous premium on the way adults speak to children. “Above all see that the child’s nurse speak correctly… No doubt the most important point is that they [nurses] should be of good character; but they should speak correctly as well. It is the nurse that the child first hears, and her words that he will first attempt to imitate. And we are by nature most tenacious of childish impressions… Do not therefore allow the boy to become accustomed even in infancy to a style of speech which he will subsequently have to unlearn.” As a result, Quintilian believed that nurses, the people who took care of infants in noble households, should be well educated.

Modern research has confirmed ancient practice. Whereas no reliable evidence has shown a link between student performance and the educationist mantras of class size and teacher certification (on the latter see the comprehensive study of The Abell Foundation), “studies have consistently documented the important connection between a teacher’s verbal and cognitive abilities and student achievement.” This is according to the U.S. Department of Education’s “Meeting the Highly Qualified Teachers Challenge” and the extensive research on which that report is based. To put it another way, children learn more when taught by smart and articulate people.

The reason is simple. Children are, according to Quintilian, emulative beings. They imitate those around them, especially adults, and strive to be worthy of their conversation. It is therefore the greatest mistake to talk down to children. While very young children may respond to a gentle voice and have to hear things repeated, adults should by no means purposely dumb down their own speech when talking to them. Nor should they limit their own conversations at the family dinner table to only what they imagine their children will understand. For by talking up rather than down to children, adults will become joyous spectators of what the human mind can accomplish.

This truth has most forcefully presented itself in my visits to the homes of friends who have young children. A former colleague of mine, a professor, and his wife, a Ph.D. student in classics, home school their children, ages ten, eight, and five. While I was eating dinner with the family the eldest daughter told me that I was lucky to be sitting in the best seat since “we all vie for that place each morning.” That’s right, vie, a word that we do not hear many high school or college students use. The daughters then went on to tell me that they had been shopping for their younger brother’s birthday party that afternoon and had found “presents the likes of which no boy has ever seen.” In other ways these children very much act their age. They play with toys. They get into trouble. They bargain with their mother about when they can leave the dinner table. But their verbal abilities exceed others five and ten years their senior.

Teachers and parents should capitalize on children’s natural tendency to verbal emulation. As we speak, so our children will speak. Should we lay the groundwork of proper speech in childhood, youths in their teenage years will disdain to express themselves in the savage vulgarity of an Eminem.

Terrence Moore is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado.