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Harold be thy name

"Her hot cheeks cooled a trifle." Well, that's what it said - and who was I to argue with Louisa M Alcott? Little Women was my favourite book when I was young, but I must admit that this particular sentence had me baffled. The heroine, Jo March, was at a party, and trifle is very definitely party food. But I was at a loss to understand how her hot cheeks had cooled one.

I took my problem to Dad, and he explained that a trifle could also mean a little. We both had a good laugh and my childish error entered family folklore. Even now any example of official gobbledegook or jargonese is described as something that could really cool a trifle.

Children, even very young children, have such a remarkable facility for making sense of language that some linguistic experts claim that we are all born with what Noam Chomsky, the American theorist, calls a Language Acquisition Device. No one has been able to prove it or pinpoint in which part of the brain it's located, but the speed with which babies and young children acquire language without any overt instruction seems to suggest some innate predisposition in the human infant to begin to make sense of the babble of sound which surrounds it from birth.

Most new mums and dads are aware of this seeming miracle and all parents are thrilled when baby utters his or her first words, whether they be "mum-mum" or "dad-dad". We treasure the errors that children make because it's in their misunderstandings, mishearings and experiments that we witness them hypothesising about language and building up the sort of linguistic knowledge that will stand them in good stead educationally.

In the words of Michael Halliday, emeritus professor of linguistics at Sydney University, Australia, they are "learning how to mean".

Just as parents record photographically baby's first steps, first Christmas or first birthday, those of us involved in education should make a note of their first confusions. "I throwed it" for "I threw it" or "They runned" for "They ran" is proof positive that a toddler is actively trying to make sense of language and has grasped the idea that the past tense of a verb is normally inflected with an "-ed". Similarly, mistakes with plural endings - "sheeps", "deers" - simply show that a child is over-gener alising. When we correct them we are implanting the ideas that English has several irregular verbs and that not all plurals are made the same way.

By the time a child enters nursery school, he or she is an extremely sophisticated language-user who is operating a communicative system that no other creature, or computer, comes anywhere near matching. Even so, errors are inevitable and parents and teachers must be prepared to relish them, not to say cherish them.

My daughter Jenny, now 16, insisted that two of the boys in her reception class were called "Knee-fan" and "Moley". That was the way she had heard their names and, by combining this with her current vocabulary and her knowledge of The Wind in the Willows, she was adamant that her version was the correct one. Nathan is her current boyfriend but Morley has remained Moley to this day.

Likewise, Jenny's elder sister, Sarah, was under the impression that God's name was Harold. "Our Father, which art in heaven, Harold be thy name . . ." Prayers and hymns are fertile ground for the sort of intelligent mistakes young children make when they are coming to terms with the vagaries of the English language and the mysteries of new vocabulary. "There's a sailor up above looking down on us with love" was one of Sarah's classic mishearings - which showed, nevertheless, an inborn "language-faculty". The word "saviour" was unknown to her, but the idea of a benevolent matelot somewhere up in the clouds obviously fitted the bill. Our vicar also had a shock when he asked if she sang "Away in a Manger" at school. Her reply brought him down to earth with a bump when he was informed that they usually sang in the hall.

Ice-cream with a "waiter" instead of a "wafer", "toothpaste sweets" for "mints", the word "shrinkled" to describe a shrunken and wrinkled dress - all these have entered Smith family history. So too has the I-Spy clue "beginning with C" which none of us could fathom one Christmas.C, of course, stood for "Clerny" (Uncle Ernie) - entirely logical when you think of names such as Tony and Rodney, and make allowances for adult pronunciation.

Most parents will need no reminding to record on film or video the usual infant rites of passage, but none of us concerned with the formative years of a child's education can afford to neglect those early experiments with language, howlers and all - especially the howlers. They are a vital and entertaining part of every child's development.

So, dust down the tape recorder and prepare to start scribbling in notebooks. In years to come you'll have a wonderful treasure-trove of English as she is spoke.

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