Getting Fancy With Words

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My mom thought I was nuts. Mostly because I refused to refrain from using elevated locution around my daughter. I said obstinate when I could have said stubborn and juxtaposed when I could have said side by side. She giggled every time I broke out a fancy word around my three year old. My mom maintained that while it’s nice to introduce her to those big words, it might be more beneficial to use the more common words around my daughter. I maintained that I will not underestimate her and would rather define a thousand and one words for her then fail to expose her to our complex and glorious language. I proved my point just the other day while walking out of the store with my mom and daughter. My daughter spotted a car the same make and model as mine. She pointed it out and I asked if that was Momma’s car. She replied, very matter of factly, “No. But it’s similar.” (We had ridden in my mom’s car.) I did the “told you so” dance right there in the Wal-Mart parking lot.

Some of you GeekMoms with high-intelligence geeklings may be arching an eyebrow right about now. She’s three and you are excited about her using the word “similar.” It may seem a bit of a mundane word, especially to my fellow logophiles. Wouldn’t “analogous,” “congruous,” or “correlative” be better reason for celebrating? Absolutely, but you must understand one thing; my daughter is speech delayed.

She suffered from a long series of ear infections as a baby and young toddler and it is our general belief this affected her hearing in her earliest days of beginning to analyze speech as a valid means of communication. She didn’t hear the things she should have and this has delayed her overall speech development.  She didn’t attempt to use words until well after her second birthday and then even I didn’t understand her most of the time. We’ve had her tested and she is not hearing impaired nor is she learning impaired, just speech delayed. D’s are switched with G’s, T’s are switched with K’s and L’s and R’s are completely out of the picture. As are any sort of digraphs like ‘th’ or ‘ld’. None of these are uncommon speech problems in children even older than mine, but most children only have one or two issues with pronunciation. My kid has all of them. We are working on it with various techniques and therapies but as with any sort of learning process, it takes time.

So when, out of the blue, she has begun to use words like “similar” and “therefore,” I’m thrilled. I still have to correct her on saying “cat” (it often comes out “tak” or “tat”) but she then follows it with a description of the food said cat just “devoured.” (“That’s a fancy word for eat, Momma.”)

Both my daughter and I have recently embarked on a marvelous journey through the Fancy Nancy series and she loves them. (As do I.) Jane O’Connor authors this extensive series that Harper Collins Publishing House has broken down for all levels of young readers from the “I Can Read” for early readers to vocabulary workbooks for the more advanced. O’Connor seems to have latched on to the same idea I accidentally stumbled upon. Children are just as capable of understanding and using “fancy” words as we grown-up types are. The books themselves are not exactly new, first published in 2006, but they are new both to my family and me.

The Fancy Nancy series uses whimsical art, clever story lines relative to many age groups, and a host of very pretty, fancy words complete with adequate definitions. Nancy, the title character, can be a bit obnoxious from time to time, but she is endearing and her boisterousness seems to attract and hold my daughter’s attention, even from the flat of the page.

If anything, my experience both in parenting and career has taught me is that we adults have an awful tendency to underestimate our children. Of course this is a generalization, but I’m guilty of it in many circumstances. The times I think that my daughter will surely not catch on, she does. I use big words because I enjoy them and feel she is capable of understanding what I mean. It never occurred to me she would begin to use them as well.

Language skills can be a bridge to many creative and analytical pathways and I’ve come to appreciate the many uses English has in this. Most of us will have heard that a child exposed to languages other than their native tongue early in life are more likely to excel in languages later. I’m coming to think that given the general tendencies of today’s vernacular to use colloquialisms, English, native tongue or no, can be just as useful as Spanish, German, or Tagalog.

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5 thoughts on “Getting Fancy With Words

  1. Hear hear Jenn! My parents used the same philosophy on my sister and me growing up (they didn’t even change their inflection when speaking to us as babies, they just talked to us like adults practically), and my sister and I both have done it with our kids.

    My oldest son (now 8) had this “actually” phase when he was 3-4 years old. It was so funny! He was using the word properly — usually to correct other people, but he was looking everywhere for a chance to use the word.

    “Would you like this red cupcake?”

    “Actually, it’s pink.”

    Thanks for the memories!

  2. Our eldest son also suffered from many ear infections, and just after his 2nd b’day, it was suggested he see a speech pathologist for his delayed speech. Considering that I didn’t talk properly until I was closer to 4, my husband and I didn’t panic – things ended up working quite well.

    The issue for our son was the first letter of any word – not just ‘s’ (which is common, from what I’ve been told), but every first letter. We found that sign language (baby sign and Auslan) worked amazingly for him. The greatest challenge we now find is when he reads – his reading level is very high, but when he says the words out loud, he often mixes a few letters. It’s not dyslexia – it’s just him recognising his previous misprounciations.

    Our youngest son did not have the ear infections like our eldest, or your child. However, our youngest is more involved in learning Italian and Auslan (he is now 2). Interestingly enough, my husband and I thought his speech development was slower than our eldest – until we realised exactly how much he is processing and exhibiting with his communication.

    I think it is great that you are introducing your daughter to such a wide array of the English language. I’d be interested to know how this has impacted her management of frustration – an issue many kids have when their communication level does not match other development.

  3. My parents (especially my mom) definitely introduced us to plenty of “grown up” words when we were kids. It definitely gave us a wide vocabulary (as did all of the books that we read). I remember in first grade I got an assignment marked down because I said that George Washington was elected unanimously. She said that no president was elected unanimously, and I’m pretty sure she was shocked that I knew the word anyway. I’m sure I was just looking for a way to use the word unanimously, but later I did learn that he was actually elected unanimously by the electoral college. Funny the things you don’t forget.

    I also remember playing scrabble with my mom when I was five. I can’t imagine I was a very tough opponent, but I bet it was more fun for her than Candy Land!

  4. Great post, Jenn! I can appreciate the speech delay issues too, as my youngest son (now 10) had apraxia (no speech at all) until he was just about three. Then we had to start at the basics and build speech for him, like most kids do normally in their toddler years.

    He has normal speech now (with some normal, lingering ‘r’ issues) but it’s funny, he did the letter switches that you describe too, as he was rebuilding his language.

    And I loved it when he was still at the simple word stage, building sentences like a 1-2 year old, but would throw in the word ‘actually’ (like Patricia’s son) but it would come out ‘ak – tilly’.

    “Ak-tilly, da cat run ‘way!” (actually, the cat ran away)

    I guess we use ‘actually’ a lot in our house!

    But I love the idea of using rich vocabulary with kids. And I love the Fancy Nancy books! So much better than the Junie B Jones books and their improper language use. 🙂


  5. Not knowing anything about this type of problem, I think you might have helped your child be using more complex words. The longer the word, the less likely it will sound like another word. ‘Eat’ rhymes with many things, but ‘consume’ doesn’t.

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