The dog has a pretty good vocabulary, considering that he is, after all, a dog. For a long time I thought he understood only simple, single words such as ‘sit’, ‘down’ and ‘no’. Then, a few months ago, I saw him trying to get into the kitchen. The door in front of him was shut, but I knew that around the other side of the kitchen there was an open door. Without thinking, I said, ‘Go round – the other one’s open.’ He looked at me with complete comprehension, nodded and then turned, trotted purposefully away and disappeared into the kitchen through the open door at the other end. I sat, open-mouthed, listening to the familiar sound of him jumping up at the kitchen worktops. Was it a coincidence? Was there one word in the sentence that he’d latched on to – or had he understood the whole thing? Since then I’ve seen him respond in a similar way to other sentences, so I’m pretty sure that he understands a lot more than he should. Mind you – he is exposed to a lot of complex language. I never talk down to him as if he is just – a dog. I chat to him, the same as I would to anyone else.
Children also need to be exposed to a lot of language to extend their vocabularies. There’s been a lot of talk about this recently amongst the children’s writers’ community, and mainly because of the acceptance speech that Geraldine McCaughrean made, when she received this year’s CILIP Carnegie Medal for children’s literature. In her speech, she spoke at length about what she perceived as the ‘dumbing down’ of children’s books, by publishers. She said that, in her opinion, without exposure to complex language children would have ‘brains far less receptive to the acquisition of vocabulary’. I think that she is completely right. As she said, ‘we master words by meeting them’.
My first memory of wanting to read by myself, is that of sitting up in bed holding a Paddington book. I think it may have been ‘Paddington Abroad’, as that was always (and still is), my favourite Paddington chapter book. I couldn’t wait until I was capable of reading the words myself, rather than having to wait until a grown-up had some time free to read it to me.
The reason I was so keen to read the Paddington books, was the type of language used – I loved it! In writing the books, Michael Bond hadn’t ‘written down’ to children, but rather, had used the language that I imagine he would have used in any situation, whether children were there or not. Words such as ‘itinerary’, ‘consult’, ‘particular’, ‘commissionaire’, ‘immigration’ and ‘circumstances’, were strewn happily across the pages, and I hoovered them all up, asking an adult to tell me what they meant when I needed to – but mostly working it out for myself by looking at the rest of the sentence and the context. It felt as though Michael Bond was writing the books as if I, and the other children who were reading them, were his intellectual equals. He trusted us to work it out for ourselves, as and when we needed to. Rather than changing the words to others that might have meant nearly the same thing, such as ‘ask’ instead of ‘consult’, or ‘doorman’ instead of ‘commissionaire’, he spoke to us on his own level, and in the process, gave the Paddington books their unique feel and a lot of humour, and gave us, the readers, a huge amount of new vocabulary. I even learnt my first French words from ‘Paddington Abroad’; they were ‘escargot’ and ‘gravillons’ and I’ve never forgotten them.
I was very pleased to see in the most recent, and sadly to be the last, Paddington picture book (a book aimed at children aged two and up), the use of the word ‘arpeggio’ – a word that I’m still not one hundred percent certain of the meaning of, despite my daughter’s violin lessons! But I can’t help wondering; if the author had been anyone other than Michael Bond, would the publisher have let him get away with including it?
But maybe what works for me – or the dog – isn’t right for everyone. Certainly there are children who need, or just prefer, a simpler structure; children who either want or need to be able to access the story easily, and without long words that they may find off-putting. To me, it seems very important to have both types of book available – some with, and some without, complex language and words that are likely to be unfamiliar. And why not – there’s plenty of room in the world for children with different needs and preferences, with varied senses of humour and dissimilar styles of learning – and hopefully plenty of room for a wide range of books… not to mention lots of different types of dogs, too.
…and if you can tell me the definition of ‘arpeggio’, please do!