Thursday, January 20, 2011
"How's it hanging', Mom?"
Now, I know where he has heard this expression. His older brother and his friends use it among themselves. Even older gentlemen of his acquaintance have been known to use it in settings which involve beer and sporting events.
"Jack.... um, that's not really something you say to a woman."
"Eeewww! Is that what it means? I never really thought of that! EEEEWWW! EEEEWWW!
I feel pretty safe that he won't say it to any of his teachers.
This story makes me laugh, but it also make me think about how much practice it takes kids to 'get' language. Even for a kid like my son who loves to read and has a great vocabulary, the whole world of idiomatic expressions lies in wait. There are idioms that are acceptable in speech, but not in writing. There are idioms that are appropriate in some settings and not in others. Anyone who has ever attempted to learn another language knows that idiomatic expressions don't quite translate and trip up even long users of a second language. My husband was taught in school to ask for the bathroom in French using an expression which translates to something like "find a little corner." Waiters in Quebec have found this uproarious.
Kids need lots of experience with talk and with print to begin to discern the differences between spoken and written language. They are constantly learning and refining and making distinctions. Mostly we need to talk and listen . The dinner table is the perfect safe place for kids to practice their oral language skills. Vocabulary acquisition is all about moving from being a receiver of language to being a producer of language. Kids need to try out new words and expressions in a safe place. Unfortunately, school is not that place. Our homes can be places where we welcome big words and new words and make clear which are suitable and which are not. In the days before computers were ubiquitous we kept a dictionary and a one volume encyclopedia and and atlas in the kitchen. At least a few times a week, we would look up a word we read in the paper or that someone mentioned at the table. (Now, I still grab the dictionary and somebody else looks it up on the internet.)
As kids begin to write we need to read what they write, paying more attention to their thinking than to the errors they make. When babies talk, we make something of what they say even if it doesn't amount to much. We don't expect a two year old to have perfect pronunciation and syntax. The same is true for early writing. Their error rate will go down with practice. We can help them do with hints here and there. At a certain point, everybody needs to understand that 'gonna' and 'gotta' are not acceptable in print except in dialogue. It didn't take Jack much to catch on that the idiom he chose wasn't appropriate As they get older, they need to learn about the different languages of exposition and dialogue and various levels of formality for different kinds of writing. It's like everything else. There is no substitute for lots of experience and lots of practice.