Saturday 4 December 2010

Child prodigies

This post is not about children who are prodigies, or vice versa, but about the prodigies that we, adults, insist on believing that children are capable of. (If you’re keen on linguisticky nerd stuff, the phrase child prodigies is an example of structural ambiguity.) This post is about perfectly typical children, in other words.

Children are adorable – well, most of the time. But from adoring them to worshipping super-human powers that we invent for them takes a long, long twist down the old reasoning path. We’ve all heard, for example, that children are like sponges. Setting aside the quirky detail that identifies children with passive absorbers that first swell and then leak, this usually means that children will learn, and learn well, anything, any time, any way. Children are, in short, learning machines.

This is why we find widespread reports that our drooling, nappied, teething, and possibly soothed infants can read books, play the piano, identify mathematical symbols, and probably devise models of naked singularities, if we ever decide to teach them that too.

Photo: MHV (Wikimedia Commons), adapted (MCF)

I was (still am) intrigued by why tiny tots should be taught this kind of thing, so I once asked a school principal, who was expressing pride at having two-year-olds learn spelling, as he put it, at his private institution. His answer: “Because they can learn it, you know?” Setting aside another quirky detail, about the interpretation of “learn spelling” at age 2, I do know that children can learn, “it” and other “its” like it. We all can, given the need for it, and this was the point of my question. But the principal’s version of the quip about Mount Everest, credited to Sir Edmund Hillary, eerily reminded me of the many circus shows I attended in my own childhood, starring cute little animals doing impressive tricks that are completely useless except to secure the livelihood of the circus owner.

Pushing your abilities is never wrong, at any age. I just happen to believe that children have better things to do than getting their timetables filled, like sponges, with adult ideals of accomplishment. Children need their time to be children, to learn what they need to learn at their own pace. The true child prodigy, to me, is that children manage to manage their childhood despite adult interference.

Current adjectival exuberance about child learning “feats” matches current wonderment about multilingual “achievements”. This must mean that being a child and being multilingual is the day’s supreme form of wow!-ness. Children are the right age, as the fairy tale asserts, and we should therefore feed them as many languages as possible, so they don’t lose out to the competition.

There’s a wonderful Singaporean word for this fear of losing out: kiasuism. It comes from Hokkien kiasu, and started a presumably humble life in Singlish to then climb all the way up to the Oxford English Dictionary, no less. Singaporeans did not invent the condition, by the way, nor has it ever been exclusive to them: they were simply brave enough to recognise it and name it.

Or maybe there’s no fear of anything at all. Maybe school principals, parents and other accountable adults simply want some of the mystique surrounding the higher intellectual abilities attributed to children and to multilingualism to rub off from their tiny wards on them. I’ve talked about the myth of multilingual virtues, so let me next address the myth of learning perfection, particularly language learning perfection, in childhood.

© MCF 2010

Next post: Linguistic virtuosi, prestissimo. Wednesday 8th December 2010.


  1. What's structurally ambiguous about "child prodigy/ies"? I don't get it. (I know what structural ambiguity means)

  2. Michael: Here is how I see it. One meaning is ‘prodigies who are children/children and prodigies’, a kind of dvandva compound structurally similar to e.g. child workers. Another meaning is ‘prodigies of/about children’, with an attributive prepositional phrase sense structurally similar to e.g. child diseases.
    Maybe different/other interpretations are possible??
    Thank you for asking!

  3. Maybe, although "child diseases" is rather dispreferred; if you google that phrase there are 23,000 hits, but if you google "childhood diseases" there are over a million.

    Your book sounds interesting; I teach future English teachers in Chile and we often try to discuss language learning in a more global sense.

  4. Michael: You’re right, I did want the dispreferred interpretation of Child prodigies in the title of the post...
    I would be very interested to know how useful you and your students find my book, in relation to language teaching and teacher training. The book is geared to a general readership, but I hope it will reach out to specialised readers too. Do let me know?


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