Want to hear creativity in language? Just speak to a toddler…

Daydreaming boy
Katy Terry

One simple way to understand how creative language can be is to have a conversation with a young person. They may not always say the conventional words, but the way they express themselves can be both practical and poetical at the same time. In their aim to make themselves understood, children can become unwitting experts at coining new terms and phrases – from snotrils (nostrils) and troublems (small problems) to Farmer Christmas and needs and poodles (pins and needles).

This week, as part of his Radio 4 Word of Mouth Series, Michael Rosen has been exploring the wondrous linguistic creations of children as they take their first steps in speech. You can listen to his discussions with Dr Laura Wright, Nicola Skinner and Dr Kriszta Szendroi as they investigate how children learn to understand and speak English and how this can lead to wonderfully creative neologisms.

What can we learn from children’s speech?

The enjoyment we gain from this playful exploration of language is unfortunately not always reflected in the way we learn languages, nor in the way Modern Languages are promoted to prospective students. Instead of celebrating the creative nature of language and the fun and joy this can bring and integrating this in the learning process, the focus is often exclusively on the practical communicative benefits.

In her Guardian article about children and language learning, Nicola Skinner eulogises about the creativity of young children’s speech:

 “As long as we have children getting words a bit skew-whiff, our language will remain vibrant, elastic and full of life. Words are children’s verbal Play-Doh, and the more words get smashed, pounded, rolled around and get glitter, peas and sticks stuck to them, the better. The children of today are verbal iconoclasts in the best possible way. This is a language that breathes and laughs and falls over repeatedly.”

Perhaps we need to take a leaf out of our children’s picture books when we start learning a new language. In between getting our mind round verb tables and perfecting our pronunciation, let’s take language out of its box, play with it, and see how much glitter we can get stuck to it.