Signs & Symptoms

Appropriate Language

Is your child precocious or overly formal in his language?

It is great when children have advanced vocabulary, speak early and make unexpected comments. “Kid’s Say the Darndest Things!” was a popular comedic show back in the day because when young children say funny things, we love it. The problem is when that translates to a lack of social savvy or challenges with social communication later.

Advanced Vocabulary. An advanced vocabulary may simply be a sign of giftedness. One important question to ask though, is does my child know what he or she is saying? Does the comprehension match the use of language? It may not, but even if it does, bright children often have the skill of being able to adjust their language and communication style to match that of the conversation partner or listener at least to some degree.

Another clue for a parent regarding quirky or formal language versus an advanced vocabulary is whether or not the skill generalizes across topics. Does a child speak in an advanced manner with a big vocabulary for every conversation topic? Are there a few interests that really lead your child to share information?

An advanced vocabulary for all topics as well as the ability to talk to children or adults indicates that a child might be gifted.

An advanced vocabulary in certain topics and challenges relating to other children may still be the mark of a gifted child, but there could be a social communication weakness that if addressed early, might be easily corrected.

Inflexible language? It can be challenging particularly with your first child, who may talk to adults more anyway, and may not attend daycare or preschool with other children. It can be helpful to go to the pool, the park and have playdates to see how your child talks to and interacts with other children. Also listen to other children and how they talk to one another. With stereotyped, quirky or formal language you will get a feeling that the language is different. In some cases, this is accompanied by tone of voice, inflection and prosody that also sound unusual. See the article voice qualityin communicationto learn more.

If you get this feeling and have any other concerns for your child related to behavior, socialization, emotional symptoms etc. it can be helpful to talk with a professional. Remember that young children have developing brains that respond very well to teaching and support. It is much easier to help your child at a young age instead of as a 12-year-old.

What do challenges with Appropriate Language look like?

  • Using language that makes him sound like an adult?
  • Echoing Grandma’s phrases?
  • Using a very precocious vocabulary but not sure what the words mean?
  • Struggling to talk about general topics but advanced in a specific area?
  • Regularly quoting and echoing things that are from TV or movies?
  • Interested in obscure or specific things and speaking like a little professor about them?
  • Lecturing others instead of talking with them?
  • Saying things like “Kids these days. . .” or “Teenagers, don’t they blow your mind?”

Why is Appropriate Language happening?

Formal language are words and comments that seem too advanced, awkward, or precise for the situation. People who use overly formal language seem like a professor giving a lecture. They might stick out in a social situation because of their tendency to use lots of long words or elaborate phrases. Often formal language comes with a professorial tone of voice and seems too scientific or detailed for the conversation. Formal language may include quirky word choices that seem to be “a bit much” for a casual conversation. Sometimes, the person may be a tad too precise, such as if you ask, “How was your trip?” and they respond by telling you the exact kilometers traveled to get to your house. If you ask, “How’s the weather out there?’ they may describe weather patterns in excruciating detail. Although this type of precision is fine for certain settings, it is out of place during typical social exchanges.

How can I manage Appropriate Language at home?

To improve casual, conversational language and decrease the use of stereotyped language, formal language and quirky phrasing, a parent can do several things.

First, use and model language for your child. Encourage back and forth conversation on a variety of topics. Practice asking questions, answering questions and sharing information back and forth. Vary activities and conversation topics at home. Try and introduce vocabulary that is appropriate and that other children may use.

We don’t want our children to lose the attention of peers by speaking in a way that is over their heads. Language used to talk with adults can be more advanced, the listener can follow.

By teaching a child how to have a conversation and be socially reciprocal, the conversation partner feels more relevant. A child can learn to care if the other person understands and is interested.

Second, before a playdatepractice specifically what topics your child may talk about and practice things to say. Help him come up with fun (true) things about himself to share with others. Help her think about cool things to talk about related to the topic of the playdate or party. Share some facts and ask opinion questions. Use a mix of things to say.

Prepare your child to know who he will be talking to and what the other child likes to do and talk about. A child is less likely to revert to stereotyped language if he knows some things he could say.

One author worked with a teenager who needed help developing the vocabulary to use with peers. When he felt nervous or overwhelmed he reverted to Star Wars speak and referred to everyone as “Jedi warriors” or “Darth Vader”. He talked a lot about the “dark side” when he was overwhelmed or confused, and this scared some of his peers. Practicing language to use helped him communicate with others.

Third, get your child enrolled in social activitiesthat provide opportunities to talk, share, offer facts, listen and ask questions. Practice what to talk about, when to listen and what things to say.

Fourth, consider a social skills groupwith clinicians who are trained to help children develop conversation skills and engage in back and forth conversation as well as social interaction like playing games, talking about topics or working together to solve problems or puzzles.

Fifth, Provide clarification.Give your child time to teach and lecture. Call it teaching and lecturing. “Johnny, would you like to teach us about dinosaurs?” or “Do you want to videotape a speech about turtles, so we can send it to grandma? She’d love to learn!” If you can explain what a lecture is and what a conversation is, your child can start to learn the difference and determine what is appropriate when.

For quotes, scripted and stereotyped language, teach your child to preface it. If he or she needs or wants to say something from a movie or TV show, have him introduce it. For example, “This is from my favorite Star Trek song. It’s so silly. Star Trek is a show my dad loved when he was little.” Then the Klingon statement has context.

How can Clear Child Psychology help with Appropriate Language?

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his or her learning, relationships, or happiness, it’s time to seek professional help.

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