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Curiosity and attention

And unconscious attention

Curiosity drives the child to attend to something. This may be the almost silent fluttering of a butterfly’s wings or the clattering hooves of a horse or the sound of music or football or cricket or the sight of a large crane. It becomes the most interesting thing to talk about or to listen to talk about.

Children can be told about the family loyalties, in sport, religion, politics…. Sometimes children listen. But sometimes they decide for themselves to focus on some topic quite separate from or only marginally related to what they have heard about at home and at school.

I like to try and relate to a child’s interests.

The structures of speech and language, the rhythms, the contrasts between different sorts of sounds, the details of syntax and morphology or ‘grammar’ fall almost entirely outside children’s interests and curiosities – though occasionally children do make interesting unprompted comments about their observations of language – as Lada Aidarova discovered. The formal structures of language are what children have to be attending to very closely in order to be able to learn to talk. But this is entirely unconscious. This close attention to formal structure is completely independent of any topic. Whatever adults are talking about, the formal structures are the same. But this attention to formal structure is seldom obvious or detectable – except when children correct themselves. Very occasionally this attention becomes clear. Once, I am afraid to say, I got a bit cross with my late son, Joe, late at night, when he was two years and a bit, he said, almost in tears, ” I don’t naughty.” Then a few minutes later, “I’m not naughty”. The next morning, looking at our car, he said “It’s not dirty, is it?” using this sort of structure, known as a ‘tag question’ for the first time. The tag question manipulated the very elements of structure which he had corrected the night before.

But although children often correct themselves, differences between their speech and that of adults is hardly ever a matter of interest. Explicit correction is sometimes misunderstood, sometimes hilariously. It is not generally appreciated by the child or acted upon. There is a theory that what is known as ‘negative feedback’ is critical in children’s language development. I have to admit that I find it tortuous and unconvincing.

In brief

The child’s curiosities and interests are the natural topic of discourse and conversation.

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