Gwendda McKay
In pursuit of the magic of language

Melbourne Age / July 26, 1988

In ‘The Age’ on 2 July, Geoff Maslen reported on American research into the language used on television. The results were uniformly depressing: the most popular television programs lad limited vocabulary, truncated sentences and few figures of speech. Maslen called for greater efforts by schools to enhance children’s language. Several responses arrived. Here are two.

THE article by Geoff Maslen ‘The Verbal Wasteland’ (Saturday Extra, 2/7) raises important questions about the language our children are hearing.

While an outstandingly wide vocabulary is not necessarily a quality of good writing — Shakespeare used a very extensive range of words, the Authorised Version Bible a comparatively small range, yet each exemplified good English — nevertheless it is a serious deprivation for a child to be subjected constantly to an impoverished vocabulary.

As Maslen points out, television programs all too often lack other qualities of language, as well as being vocabulary-poor. If television is used as a substitute for literature, children are missing an exciting experience. The language of literature suggests meaning, through the juxtaposition of images; the ear is haunted by rhythms and word play.

Although such patterning is most clearly seen in poetry, it is also apparent in well-written prose. We all have favorite read-aloud books and these books are favorites because the language sings and dances.

Last week, knowing I was to be visited by small grandchildren, I bought ‘Latchkin Patchkin’, by Helen Morgan. I hope her sales soar, because the book is rich in all those ways Maslen regards as vital. The subject is an age-old one — a poor little woman is befriended by a tiny, magic man who rewards her because she is kind to him. He transforms her life.

The joy came not from the content, but from the magic of the language. The farmer is «a lean man, a mean man, a man without a smile». The old woman «was scratched, she was pricked, she was snatched, she was nicked». Her old skirt «was dragged, her stockings were snagged».

The prose possesses all those characteristics Maslen records as absent from so many popular television programs: wide -vocabulary, rhythmic sentences/ figurative language,’exciting use of verbs and adjectives. The child’s joy was hot primarily for the content — indeed both of us had read together so’ often that we knew the conventions of such a story — but for the form.

Most children’s poetry is rich in rhythm and word play; not always is it so rich in figurative language. Prose written for children is also often light in metaphor, yet children themselves use metaphor freely when they are young. It is their way of making meaning of their world.

We should try to develop the metaphoric turn of mind, for it is needed in every area of life. It is not difficult. One simply cuddles close to a child and reads.

Chukoysky, in his book ‘From Two to Five’, points out that: «Beginning with the age of two, every child becomes for a short period of time a linguistic genius. Later, beginning with the age of five to six, this talent begins to fade. There is no trace left in the eight-year-old of this creativity with words, since the need for it has passed: by this age the child has fully mastered the basic principles of his native language.»

True, the eight-year-old child may no longer have the urgent need to invent words, but he still possesses enjoyment in words used excitingly: witness the folkloric tradition he inherits. Children need to feel a growing power in the realm of language.

Research into children’s developing understanding of metaphor has revealed that growing comprehension seems built on the ashes of creativity, for as they grow older and are able to understand the significance of a metaphor, they themselves use less-metaphoric language.

Educators and parents must help children to recognise creative use of language; further they must encourage children to be imaginative in a medium always at hand — words.

To quote Chukovsky once again: «The present belongs to the sober, the cautious, the routine-prone, but the future belongs to those who do not rein in their imagination.»

Children are our future. We dare not ignore their imagination.