An essential aspect of early education, formal and informal and in every human culture, is coaching the very young to communicate articulately. Through explicit means, such as the preschool teacher’s
reminder to “Use your words [rather than slap the kid who just hurt your feelings]” to the implicit demand that responding when asked a question is required, we work at sharing, preserving, and refining language to serve our purposes as a social fabric.
With Samuel Johnson’s 308th birthday noted by Google and other less pervasive sources today, it’s a good time to consider how audiobooks and listening to language both maintain and expand each generation’s capacity to understand, speak, and choose the most appropriate words each individual can to keep that social fabric strong and dynamic.
It’s important to note at the outset that Johnson did not exclude himself from a rich social life, nor limit himself to a single neighborhood. He traveled. He made and maintained friendships. He read widely as well as writing. For Johnson, articulation wasn’t a sterile exercise but a garden to work, feed, and celebrate.
Listening to rich language, crafted by authors who make their characters both credible and relatable, and performed by narrators who understand both the rhythms of the writer and the needs of the audience, serves as a direct route to vocabulary building, flexibility in personal expression, and empathy development. Audiobooks ensure language as a lived experience, without regard to whatever verbal poverty or carelessness a child’s home might afford. For many, listening to audiobooks may be one of the few occasions when spoken language is both directed at them and demands no immediate action, simply inviting the warm bath of soaking in words, phrases, meaningful intonations that range across a wide spectrum of emotions and intentions, and opportunities to be held rapt.
While more American parents claim to understand and follow the advice that reading aloud to children from a young age is important, Scholastic’s 2017 Kids and Family Reading Report shows a drop off in following this advice from about age 6, just as kids are developing a deeper capacity to understand how to use words and phrasing independently and increasing in their emotional capacity for empathy That poor timing in pulling away from family-shared reading aloud can find some mitigation in access to hearing increasingly sophisticated narrative lines, more varied accents, and exposure to situations that are unfamiliar to any one individual listener by making sure that listening to books is not considered done and dusted for the school aged child.
If we want to assure a future in which understanding is more readily available through verbal communication than through physical power assertions, let’s share the joys of listening to language.