Friday, December 19, 2014

No surprise here: Toddlers have amazing language skills

Is my youngest granddaughter advanced, as some in my family like to think? When I heard this claim made yet again the other day, I decided to do some research. My own gut-feeling was that the kid cruises along at the high end of the curve but it would be wise to refrain from informing the university of our budding genius.

I came by my gut-feelings thanks to watching two other children go from being babies, to toddlers to little girls. These children are the littlest one's sister and cousin. I was convinced the two girls were advanced. They weren't. They were bright. But that's it. Bright, by the way, is very comforting. It puts a lot of worries to rest.

So, what can the average 18-month-old do? A lot more than one might expect. I gleaned the following from PBS Parents and confirmed the numbers with further research.

  • At 18 months, kids understand 200 or more words and use 68 words. (Keep in mind that a well-trained dog may understand something in the order of 200 words.)
  • Between 16 and 23 months, children typically enjoy a spurt during which they acquire one or two words per day. By 23 months the average child can say about 200 words.
  • At about 18 months, the average kid begins combining words to form phrases and even sentences.

Children understand a lot more than most of us realize. Choose your words carefully around little ones. They are listening and understanding. At least, this is true when it comes to their native language. Sometime after 6 months of age the ability to discriminate individual sounds in other languages takes a downward turn. The loss of this sensitivity is gradual but steady and with the passing of time a lot of this language ability is lost.

A senior I know says he has no ability to learn a new language. None. He worked in government for years, took French courses as a Canadian government employee and yet can't order dinner in a Quebec diner.

Both the old geezer and the young toddler are actually just average. The old fellow may be at the lower end of the curve while my granddaughter may be nearer the top but neither is remarkable.

When I watch folk pushing children like my granddaughter, filling these children's heads with stories of their great abilities, I am reminded of the last two lines of the W.H. Auden poem The Average.

"He saw the shadow of an Average Man
Attempting the exceptional, and ran."

For me, there is no shame in being average. For one thing, I believe most of us are exceptional at certain things. Being exceptional, but only in limited areas, is also average. One must learn to appreciate and celebrate one's talents.

I like the way the Leadership Freak put it: "Believing exceptional is about everything and not one thing places exceptional out of reach. The impossibility of being exceptional at everything paralyzes legitimate passion for one thing." I believe it was this that foiled Auden's Mr. Average.

My senior friend should accept the reality that learning a new language is difficult for old geezers. His problems should come as no surprise. If he accepted this truth, maybe, just maybe, he could learn to speak French on the level of a two year old, order poutine in a Quebec restaurant and have French language comprehension skills on par with the family dog.

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