Proof that children create language, not just learn language, was offered years ago by Deborah Wells Rowe, a wonderful researcher in early literacy. It all started when a group of little kids discussed a staple remover in their classroom. Talkinging amongst themselves and with their teacher about what it was and experimenting with what it did, one child began calling it a “staple regrabber.”
That very descriptive phrase appears now as part of the lexicon in our home. When my wife and I have a document to unstaple, we’ll ask, “Hey! Where’s the staple regrabber?” Kids often coin terms that our families latch onto. For example, our daughter called her baby blanket, “Night-night” for her own obvious reasons. That label also is a common part of our family’s lingo. You’ll enjoy reading the hilarious reports of such terms that are regularly shared in the Huffington Post.
Some words that we use every day were created centuries ago, yet new words and terms appear each year to explain societal changes, like “social distancing.” In fact, in 2020, 581 words, phrases and names were added to or revised in the Oxford English Dictionary, reflecting the way that the English language continually evolves.
As children live in this changing landscape of words, a huge part of their mastery of language (which is the single most important skill they will ever learn as humans) is that language is not finite. It not only changes all the time, but they can participate in that evolution through their everyday interactions with life and with each other.
The lesson here for us adults is that we must encourage children to take charge of their own language development. We must teach them that words are not just for school learning; they are creative tools for thinking and communicating. As children learn to speak and write, we must help them become fluent and comfortable in making word choices that are spot on to express their intentions to others.
Now, individuals always arguably have “better” words for things, actions, events or ideas. However, the determination of the “best choice” word for something should be made by the speaker or writer. The child should get to decide which words are likely to help their listeners or readers fully understand what they want to communicate. This kind of language leadership is learned and should be encouraged very early on.
A great way to begin language leadership lessons is by reading and discussing well-written books with children. Relaxed, fun reading and discussion time while sitting on the lap of loved ones will guide children in understanding and creating language in their day-to-day in-person and in-print interactions. And the continual, lifelong mastery of language should be a paramount focus of education to ensure ultimate academic and life success for all.