Simplifying language

The language we use when we chat is complicated.  We don’t mean to, us adults just can’t help saying things in a more difficult way than we need to.

There’s an example: I could have said above “Adults use complex language”.  Instead of being clear and simple, I said the same sentence in two different ways, used a lot of emphasising phrases, and tricky grammar.  In fact, there were only three important words in that sentence in order for you to understand the gist of it – ‘adults’, ‘complex’, ‘language’.

Keeping language simple can help children understand and learn language.

Top 7 reasons short, simple sentences are the best – simplifying language

There are many reasons, short, simple sentences help our children:

simplfying language

  • My span of attention is short! If there is too much language before you get to the ‘point’, I’ve lost interest and moved on
  • When you say a sentence, I have to listen to lots of words and work out which bit of noise (word) matches the picture or toy you are talking to me about. The more words you say, the harder it is to work out which one means the same as this stripy animal (picture of a child looking at a zebra).
  • My understanding develops gradually. At two years old, I may only be able to understand two key words in a sentence at a time (see our language course for more information and games).  Don’t make all your sentences just two words long though – keep reading for why you should still include the grammatical words!
  • My memory is also still developing. If there’s too much language for me to remember in your sentence, I can’t understand it (or if you’ve given me an instruction, I can’t follow it)
  • Repetition helps me learn. If you’re using simple sentences, you are most likely to be using similar words or sentence structures each time (e.g. ‘the frog jumped’, ‘Sarah laughed’, ‘the cat miaowed’), and I will pick up on these patterns.
  • Silence is powerful. It gives me time to focus my own attention, think about what you’ve said, and think of what I can say back.
  • If we both have short turns, it’s more likely we’ll be taking equal turns, which leads to a more fun chat for both of us!

Here are some examples of instructions and information simplified to two different levels:

Tricky Why’s this hard? Medium Simpler
“You can’t have any ice-cream until you finish your peas” This sentence is actually made up of two parts, ‘you can’t have any ice-cream’, ‘you finish your peas’, joined with the connective ‘until’.  This increases both the memory load, and the grammatical complexity of the sentence.  The time concept ‘until’ is also difficult for young children to understand “Eat your peas, then you can have ice-cream” “Peas first, then ice-cream”

Or “Eat your peas”

“Make sure your library book is in your bag” If the book and bag aren’t right in front of your child, they have to remember two pieces of information for the time it takes to look for both items.  There’s a high chance they will get distracted, or forget one of the items. “Put your book in your bag” “Get your book” (pointing to the location of the book, then wait for your child to get the book).

“Find your bag”

“Put your book in the bag” (when both the book and the bag are in front of your child)

 

“Brush your teeth after you put your pyjama’s on”

 

In these examples the two steps in the instruction are actually in reverse order – you want the child to put their pyjama’s on first, then brush their teeth.  Watch out when using ‘before’ and ‘after’ with very young children. “Put your pyjamas on then brush your teeth” “Put your pyjamas on”

“Brush your teeth”

 

 

“Come on, hurry up and get your shoes on” Saying the same thing in 3 different ways gives your child three pieces of information to process.  If you need to repeat, say the same simple sentence again. “Get your shoes on” “Shoes on!”
“Oh no, the boy is being chased by the monster!”

 

 

This is a passive structure – look out for a ‘by’ sentence telling you who did the action.  Children are thought to understand these sentences around age 3-4 (Thatcher et al 2008). “The monster is chasing the boy!” “A monster!”

“A scary monster!”

“Poor boy!”

 

You don’t want to keep your language simple forever, take the lead from your child and use sentences that are a couple of words longer, or a bit more complex, than they are using themselves.  If they are chatting away, having conversations or telling you about what happened today at nursery or school, chat back!

Simple, but keep the grammar!

Keep your sentences grammatical.  Your child is learning language from you, so if you give them examples which do not contain the grammar they will eventually learn, you are not doing them any favours!  For example, it might be tempting for a child who is starting to join two words together who points to your face and says ‘glasses’ to model back ‘mummy glasses’, but this way your child is missing out on the grammatical information that helps them understand why the two words are used together – ‘they’re mummy’s glasses’ (Fey et al 2003).

Children have been found to listen out for the words we naturally stress in sentences to make sense of them and learn language.  If we take out the grammatical words, which will be less stressed (e.g. ‘they’re’ in the above example), we are left with two words only.  Your child will listen to which of these is most stressed and focus on this, so they may only focus on one word (Bedore and Leonard 1995).  Having the grammatical words around them makes the content words stand out even more!

Children also use the entire sentence structure to help them work out the role of a new word in the sentence, for example whether it is a key word or a grammatical word, whether it is the name of something or an action (Venker et al 2017 provide useful information on this).  As adults, the best thing we can do to help this language learning process is keep our sentences short but grammatical so our children can use their natural language learning strategies.

Venker et al 2017, “When Is Simplified too…Simple?”, available at https://leader.pubs.asha.org/article.aspx?articleid=2595617

Written by Alys Mathers, Speech and Language Therapist

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