Children in a world of prescriptivists

Lonneke van Leest-Kootkar is one of the few students from my Testing Prescriptivism course who still has a second blogpost to publish. As you will see, she is also the mother of two small children:

The inspiration for this blogpost came from a quotation from Halliday et al.’s The Linguistic Sciences and Language Teaching (1964), which I came across in Milroy & Milroy’s Authority in Language which we read during the course:

A speaker who is made ashamed of his own language habits suffers a basic injury as a human being: to make anyone, especially a child, feel so ashamed is as indefensible as to make him feel ashamed of the colour of his skin ([1985] 2012: 84).

Even though I do have some stickler tendencies tucked away deep inside of me, I don’t like correcting other people. In my teens I had this stickler boyfriend who taught me some ‘proper’ Dutch grammar. I hated being corrected and even though I now know and prefer the correct forms, I still don’t like correcting other people.

As a mother of two small children I am confronted with sticklers and pedants correcting young children on a daily basis. I am usually amazed at the new words my two-and-half-year-old daughter comes up with and how she is able to apply grammar to new words.

Even though blogs on “good parenting” and grammar usually encourage parents to let children make mistakes and not correct them, especially not mid-sentence, this is not the reality of what is happening. I’m sure many new mothers read popular blogs and email newsletters on the development of their children, but I wanted to find out where the stickler attitude to children’s language acquisition came from.

My children’s nursery recently hosted a meeting on child language acquisition. The experts of the evening were two middle-aged women from the consultatiebureau, the governmental Dutch baby clinic which monitors your child’s development and provides vaccination.

At first the women recommended repetition when teaching children to use single words, but then they went on and on about how to correct their language. Their views on bilingualism were peculiar to say the least: in their opinion you had to teach a child one language with all its rules and correct grammar before even attempting to teach it a second language. As the consulting agency is considered an authority on raising children, I was shocked to see how their views on child language acquisition were so outdated. These women considered themselves real authorities on the matter and weren’t too pleased with the critical questions they got. Even though the baby clinic I go to has the reputation of being old-fashioned at times, this was beyond my expectations.

I was relieved  to hear the nursery staff disagreeing with them, and though I never heard them correct the children entrusted to their care, some of the other parents present really needed reassuring. My children need to learn language and grammar but I don’t think that stopping them mid-sentence to correct them is the way to go. My usual attitude to issues like this is that they’ll probably learn to speak correctly before they hit the age of 18. I’m pretty sure my daughter won’t keep using her self-invented word tattie for ‘rabbit’ and I’m pretty sure she’ll be able to say peekaboo instead of the peekookoo she insists on at this moment.

Please share your thoughts on correcting children’s language and some of the clever children’s language inventions you’ve come across. For those new parents googling and stumbling upon this post, here are some more blogs with information on correcting children’s language:, and, as well as an article by Bohannon and Stanowicz (1988) that you might find of interest.

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1 Response to Children in a world of prescriptivists

  1. Lonneke, I have two examples for you, one of nearly thirty years ago, and the other from Jane Austen. My youngest son used to say “Apiepam”, and it took me a long time to work out what he was saying. Until I suddenly realised I regularly called him “Apie [little monkey] van me [of mine]”! And the other one you will even find in the OED: it is “itty” as in “itty dordy”, which is attributed to Jane Austen. In reality, it is not Jane Austen who should be credited as being the first user of “itty”, but her three-year-old nephew little George (Georgie). I’m sure he wasnt corrected’by his elders, or it wouldn’t have become a fond reference in Jane Austen’s letter to her sister Cassandra! Sweet, don’t your think?

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