The secret vocab of four year olds

Those five infamous words that could break a friendship within ten seconds-“You’re not my friend anymore!”  You have to admit that we have all said that phrase at some point in our childhood. This week I watched “The secret life of four year olds” a documentary on Channel Four. A group of four year olds are observed over a short period of time with some social tests being given to examine their reactions.

Observing the children speak made me realise the sheer volume of vocabulary they have to learn. We have what’s called a mental lexicon which is similar to a dictionary in our brain. For these children the amount of words they need to know is impossible to store. At the age of two most children should have 50 words in their vocabulary, which is just under the amount of words in this paragraph, not many is it?

It is therefore of no surprise that the children speak with many imperatives such as “give it” which has much fewer words than its formal counterpart “Can you give it to me please?”. Repetition is also used as the children do not have enough language skills to emphasis their point. Instead of asking the other girls to play with her one child simply repeats “come on”. I now realise that when we tell children to “ask nicely” they struggle because they just don’t know the words.

One psychologist in the programme stated that “the average girl at four years old is 5 months ahead with their vocabulary compared to a boy of the same age”.

I have completed some research and I was surprised that the key reason for this difference is actually to do with biological differences. Boys have a greater sense of spatial awareness which is why you are much more likely to find them play fighting or playing sports. Whereas, girls haven’t developed spatial awareness as much hence why they prefer quieter and controlled play. What girl didn’t play “Mums and Dads” when they were young?

Girls also produce more of certain hormones which suggests why they are more able to express their feelings and emotions. One child in the programme was very advanced in her vocabulary when expressing her emotions “No one’s ever said that to me before” “I’m upset”.  I recognised that there are only a key set of words children know when learning how to express their emotions, this includes the synonyms “happy and sad”. There is no degree to the adjectives; the children were simply either “happy” or “sad”.

emotiosnThis reminded me of Saussure’s theory of the signifier and the signified. We have an object that we look at and it reminds us of the word we associate with the object.  Linking to how a child sees a smiling face and assumes happiness or they see someone crying and assumes sadness. Diachronic variation also has an impact. This refers to how the reference of the sign changes over time with technology being the key influence in modern society. What are the two following pictures showing?


computer keys

They are both called keys, but how do we explain that to a child?  These signs are arbitrary, meaning we cannot explain why something has a specific name, it just does.

Pronunciation also caused difficulty. Elision was frequent “Scuse me” and “wanna” being prime examples. A child learning to speak and use their voice is similar to giving an adult a new instrument to play. Initially we don’t know how to, it is something that develops over time. We teach children sounds by using the letters in the alphabet as signs. However, these signs do not necessarily link to the sound we actually produce. For example the word “bees” is spelt with an S, we tell a child this makes a “sssss” sound using the comparison of a snake hissing. When we make the sound aloud we actually make a “z” sound. It is therefore overwhelming for children to associate between the signifier and the signified when they do not link in meaning.

Another key difficulty the children had was with verbs. Irregular verbs seemed to cause the most challenges; it is very hard for the children to accept one rule for some words and a different rule for others. This links to first person or third person with phrases such as *“they was not on their seats”. In addition everything was seen as a person, when referring to a set of plants the child described how “no one has a label”. For children there is no separation between animate and inanimate objects. Evidently both of these children wanted to talk in third person. The first child simply did not know how to change the verb. Not knowing how to change verbs therefore impacts on sentence structure which explains why many of the children’s sentences were ungrammatical. A verb is always the head of a sentence, we build sentences around them. Once children understand the verbs the rest of the sentence should fall into place.

Above are multiple observations of which there are no concrete solutions for. What is emphasised by the programme is the importance of the child’s environment which has a huge impact on their language skills. The occupation of the child’s parents suggests why certain words made their mental lexicon, one boy’s mother was a fashion designer and his father was a chef emphasising why he knew the adjective “beautiful”. What’s amazing is that interacting with other children the development of the children’s language was enormous from where they started from. We should therefore never underestimate the power of the English language. Language is the basis for learning and learning is the basis of life.


Further reading/ references:


One thought on “The secret vocab of four year olds

  1. I love this! Even though children do have less words to choose from when communicating I do feel that they are better at it! I wish I had less words to choose from sometimes so I just could say what I wanted to say!


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