COVID and changing vocabulary of children

In four-year-old Rachel’s world, A is for ‘asymptomatic’, though she stumbles over the word and doesn’t quite understand what it means. Similarly, ‘B’ is not for ‘ball’ but for ‘bath’, and ‘C’ is not for ‘cat’ but COVID. In her world, learning happens via a computer screen, and football or playing catch with friends is something that she has never experienced.

While the pandemic has changed the reality of older children and adults, for toddlers this is the only world they know. One where their parents put on masks, and social distancing is the norm. And this is reflected in the nascent vocabulary, which has seen a significant change in the last year and a half — a trend that kindergarten and nursery school teachers have observed.

“Listening is the first learning skill that every child develops, which is why they are picking up words related to the pandemic,” said Roopa Aradhya, senior mistress, Kindergarten, Delhi Public School, Bengaluru East. “Children are able to only store a few words. They catch words that are spoken or repeated a lot around them,” she said. In the physical classroom, teachers rely not just on words, but on body language as well to communicate. But, as Ms. Aradhya pointed out, now that classes are virtual, they have to rely on words.

Before the pandemic, the first few words that nursery and pre-school students pick up in school were silence, school bus, classroom, and playground. They have been replaced by coronavirus, immunity, isolation, lockdown, mask, sanitiser, pandemic, quarantine, and spread to name a few. Other words like headphones, login and log out, enlarge, and mute — all reflecting virtual learning — have also become part of the popular lexicon among children.


Sarah G. said her three-year-old daughter uses words like germs, sanitiser, mask, lockdown “liberally” in her daily conversation. She said that she is often surprised – and often saddened – by how appropriately the words are used. “Besides picking up words after hearing conversations between my parents and me, she also learns words from advertisements when she watches television. Most of the advertisements talk of germs, sanitisation, COVID-19, and she parrots these words,” said Ms. Sarah, adding that children also seem to have picked up the tension and anxiety that’s come with the pandemic.

However, Pranothi Banwasi, director, Roots Montessori House of Children, said that while children are picking up newer words in the pandemic, their world itself is becoming narrower due to their limited experience. “However, the vocabulary they would have picked up if they attended school or preschool is missing. The structured learning approach is missing,” she said.

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Sagar Biswas

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