I’ll swear she’s too young to say THAT...

Young children can soak up an astonishing amount of new words. Picture: Thinkstock

Young children can soak up an astonishing amount of new words. Picture: Thinkstock - Credit: PA

Nick Conrad discovers to his cost that young children can not only learn language, they can use 'language'...

There is nothing more deplorable than a toddler with indecorous vocabulary. A lewd remark delivered from an innocent tongue will raise eyebrows. I too may have been tempted to 'tut' if one was delivered within my earshot… that is until this week.

As a parent I'm far from perfect – in fact I'm always learning. So when my daughter, aged nearly three, puffed out her chest and delivered (with relish) a profanity, I was aghast. I only had myself, and Apple technology, to blame. Two whole days before the 'incident' I had encountered a challenging episode with a 'system upgrade'. Nothing seemed to work. Eventually, exasperated, a string of fantastically therapeutic profanities were delivered.

I must stress that I was in my study believing I couldn't be overheard. Sadly my daughter, Erin, was hovering at the door. Fast-forward 48 hours to when my mother and father-in-law arrive to babysit. My delightfully intelligent girl momentarily mimicked the behaviour of a common thug.

She puffed her little chest out, stature theatrically contrapposto and repeated the offending phrase. She then surveyed her shocked and unappreciative audience clearly hoping to have achieved some sort of reaction. My mother-in-law instructed me to not draw attention to this appalling language.


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I then received one heck of ticking-off from all the adults assembled for being the culprit who (inadvertently) had sullied the purity of my daughter's English.

'In my defence…' I started.

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Before I could draw breath my mother-in-law had cut me short. Fixing a stare upon my reddening face she chastised me. 'Nicholas, this isn't the first time...'

I know my mother-in-law means business when her eyes dart around her silver-rimmed aspheric lenses and her lips begin to twitch. I knew I was in real trouble when she put down her wheat-free Rich Tea biscuit to free up the accusatory finger which was now being stabbed in my direction.

'I wished the Earth would swallow me up the other day,' Nessie said.

Her embarrassment centred on my insistance to use the anatomically-correct terminology for the defining difference between a man and women. Well… all children ask – maybe I shouldn't have been so honest in my answer?

When inquiring after the 'difference' between girls and boys, I delivered an age-appropriate name and in addition the Oxford English Dictionary-endorsed medical phrase. I didn't really think she would absorb the information. She did!

I imagine it was quite a scene when my daughter insisted on telling the gathered congregation at the Methodist coffee morning (I'll leave the location out) what exactly 'medically' might be found between their legs. I can only imagine her audience choking on their Douwe Egberts Rich Roast… I can only apologise.

Children seem to be especially designed to listen to language. In fact, they don't even wait until they are born to start. Speech can be heard in the womb - not precisely enough to make out individual sounds, but clearly enough to identify the basic rhythm and certain features of the speaker's voice. Children learn language very quickly.

Between age two and six, they average ten new words a day - almost one for every waking hour and often two after hearing it just once or twice. By age six, they have a vocabulary of about 14,000 words, but they're far from finished. Over the next few years, they move even faster, learning as many as 20 new words per day.

Watching Erin learn the English language is one of the greatest privileges of being a parent, but now I only use really impressive, complicated words in her earshot. She can say 'discombobulated'… and anything is better than 'go forth and multiply'.

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