What is Formal and Unusual Language in Childhood?
Formal and unusual language is the language used by a child that seems too advanced, odd, awkward, or unusual for the situation.
These quirky word choices are often overly academic and specialized in nature. The child may sound like a little professor, rattling off information about volcanoes or the Hoover Dam.
Symptoms of Formal and Unusual Language in Childhood
Language that makes your child sound like an adult: your child says things like, “Marriage is a way of propagating the human species.”
Echoing grandparent’s phrases: your child is using words he hears from parents in their sentences like, “It is important to have experienced some hardships in life.”
Using advanced vocabulary: your child is using words that are beyond their years
Struggles with everyday communication but can talk about one specific advanced topic: your child is struggling to communicate with friends but can tell you everything about car washes or air conditioning units
Speaks like a little professor: your child will lecture anyone about the different types of dinosaurs, the police force, or natural disasters
Saying adult phrases: you hear your child saying things such as “kids these days…” or “teenageers, don’t they blow your mind?”
Causes of Formal and Unusual Language in Childhood
Social communication challenges
Children who are unsure about how to connect socially may feel most comfortable sharing factual information. They may say something too formal or repeat information because these are the thoughts rolling through their minds. Their language may seem more like a one-way dialogue, lacking social connection. The conversation partner may feel like an audience member.
Children who are extremely bright may simply spend more time thinking about intellectual or highly academic topics. This trait can be just fine so long as peers are interested in discussing these ideas and find the conversation engaging. However, it can be more of a problem if peers feel that these topics are boring or that the gifted child is ‘acting like a know-it-all.’
Autism Spectrum Disorder
Children with challenges in social communication and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior or interests may have a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Social communication challenges in autism often include difficulty having a back and forth conversation, knowing what to say, or understanding what might interest another person. In addition, the language a child with ASD uses to communicate can feel very quirky at times.
Examples of language communication styles often seen in autism
Formal language: Sometimes, an advanced word may be used incorrectly, or a child may not know what it means. At other times children have advanced language skills that may lead to teasing. Peers do not always relate to a child who speaks like a little adult.
Examples of Formal Language: One 6-year-old child said, “It’s an irrevocable fact!” The psychologist said, “What does that mean, irrevocable?” The child said, “I don’t know. I heard it on TV.” A couple of instances like this may be somewhat typical, but issues arise when children frequently echo language they don’t understand. The child may have a strong memory but is struggling with using their language to communicate. The use of irrevocable is formal for a six-year-old child.
An 8-year-old came into my office after asking her mother to wait in the waiting room. She sat authoritatively on the couch and shared, “I’ve seen posters for Autism Awareness at school. I conducted my own review of the literature, and I need you to make a diagnosis. I am certainly on the Autism Spectrum.” She indeed received that diagnosis and although incredibly bright, her speech was remarkable in that it was extremely formal for a child her age.
Precocious language: Some children may seem especially advanced for their age in terms of language. Using big words might just be a cute thing your 3-year-old does. A typical child may use adult phrases after spending time with the grandparents. It can become problematic if it becomes more common and makes up a lot of what the child says.
Example of Precocious Language: An 8-year-old girl looked at the psychologist, shook her head, and said, “Teenagers these days. So moody!” This was after passing an older child in the hall on the way to the therapy room. Later she said, “I declare! This problem is unsolvable.” Talking to this child was often like talking to a 70-year-old woman. She spent a lot of time with her grandmother and could not seem to differentiate those conversations from the language that is appropriate in other settings.
Specific language: A child may sound a bit odd because of the amount of detail they provide regarding a particular topic. It can also mislead a parent to assume that a child has a very high vocabulary when this may not generalize across areas. For example, a child may have an advanced vocabulary for the parts of a truck engine but not know the answers to simple emotional questions like, ‘how happy and sad are alike.’ Often children with this profile speak like a professional on one topic but have average verbal skills overall.
Example of Specific Language: When asked, “Tell me about your favorite animal?” A 10-year-old shared, “Dermochelys coriaceous are leatherback sea turtles, migratory predators that feed exclusively on gelatinous macro amoeba. Would you like to know more about their native habitat?” For this specific interest, she had memorized several scientific abstracts and could share information that was not typical for an elementary student. Her language was advanced in a specific area that was unusual for her age.
Professorial language: A child may use language in the form of a lecture rather than a back and forth exchange. The ‘lecture’ tends to be like a list of facts. When you are speaking with a child who uses this type of academic speech, you will feel like you are in a college class and it is your job to simply listen, not to comment or ask questions.
Example of Professorial Language: One 5-year-old boy shared, “Did you know the two-toed Sloth sleeps in a tree?” “Why yes, let me tell you more about that.” Older kids may talk like this too. A 15-year-old interested in law enforcement reviewed the rules and regulations governing officers of the law in the state of California, during a therapy session. Again, it did not feel like a conversational exchange but more an offering of information.
Stereotyped language: Some children with interests in highly specific topics may talk on and on about a subject without checking in with the listener. This issue relates to restricted and repetitive language or interests, discussed in a companion article. When children are interested in specific areas, they may repeat, echo, or script about these subjects excessively. It may feel like specific phrases are ‘on repeat.’ For example, the child may be quoting a television commercial, an ad on the radio, or a favorite sequence from a movie or book.
Often children using this language just begin to script with no context, and you must determine what the relevance is for their words. Children with minimal language may script or offer lines from a favorite song while being unable to say “hi” or “my name is Scott.” It is unusual for a child to be able to recite Robinhood or Star Wars and not be able to greet someone politely.
Example of Stereotyped Language: A 6-year-old child is looking at a picture of a beach scene. The clinician asks, “what do you see in this picture?” A stereotyped response may be “There’s Klingons on the starboard bow, starboard bow, starboard bow; there’s Klingons on the starboard bow, starboard bow, Jim.” This is a stereotyped response because it is scripted from Star Trek.
How to Help Children with Formal and Unusual Language in Childhood
A parent can do several things to improve casual, conversational language and decrease the use of stereotyped language, formal language, and quirky phrasing.
- First: Use and model language for your child. For example, instead of peppering your child with questions, start with a statement. You can say, “I had a crazy day. Do you mind if I tell you about it?” Then, encourage back and forth conversation about your day and your child’s day as well. Practice asking questions, answering questions, and sharing information back and forth.
If you notice some unusual phrases or vocabulary coming from your child, acknowledge it. You might say, “That’s a big word. You know so much about this topic. I would think most kids your age do not talk about that as much.” You can gently weave into the conversation that adults are more inclined to use such high level language. Peers, on the other hand, may prefer to talk about younger topics and that is okay. Your child may need to know that they could lose the attention of peers by speaking in a way that is over their heads.
- Second: Before a playdate, practice what topics your child may talk about and practice things to say. Help your child come up with fun and genuine things to share with others about themselves or their interests. Help your child think about cool topics to talk about related to the topic of the playdate or party.
Help your child think about what his friend may be interested in and teach your child how to incorporate the other child’s interest into the playdate. A child is less likely to revert to stereotyped language if he knows some things to say to keep the conversation flowing.
In our clinical practice, we 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, which scared some of his peers. It helped him to practice other language to use when communicating with peers.
- Third: It can help to get your child enrolled in social activities that provide opportunities to talk, share, offer facts, listen and ask questions. A cooking class, lego club, robotics club, zoo camp, or other intellectually stimulating class can be a great place to converse with others.
- Fourth: Consider a social skills group with clinicians trained to help children develop conversation skills and engage in back and forth conversation and social interaction. These groups usually include playing games, talking about certain topics, or working together to solve problems or puzzles.
- Fifth: Allow your child to ‘do their thing’ sometimes. Provide some clarification around when and where you will talk about your child’s favorite things. Give your child time to teach and lecture. Call it teaching and be a willing student. “Johnny, would you like to teach us about dinosaurs?” or “Do you want to videotape a speech about turtles so that 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 and when to share it.
When it comes to quoting movies or videos, parents can use the same approach. For quotes, teach your child to preface it before you listen. You can say something like, “Wait, I want to hear this, but I need to know which movie this is about first!” Of course, as a parent, you have heard it 100x but pretend for a moment that you haven’t heard of the movie line.
Give your child a minute to introduce it first if they need or want to say something from a movie or TV show. For example, expect your child to say, “This is from my favorite Star Trek song. It’s so silly. I love this part of the movie.” At this point, you can listen intently to the statements. You are teaching your child that conversation partners need a little context to show interest in the topic or quotes they are sharing.
When to Get Help for Formal or Unusual Language in Childhood
If your child consistently uses formal and unusual language, it can be okay so long as they are doing fine engaging with peers. Some gifted children, for example, talk on and on about certain topics, but their friends do too. Self-proclaimed ‘gamers’ can talk about their favorite games for hours. This is just fine if peers are following along and sharing as well.
Another example of formal or unusual language that causes no issues is ‘cosplay.’ Many kids and teens enjoy dressing up and talking as if they are certain online characters. If other kids join in the fun and connect on these topics, this formal language is completely acceptable.
The time to be concerned is when your child is the only one doing the talking. If you notice that your child is having a very hard time connecting with peers, pay attention. They may need help understanding how to hold a reciprocal conversation. Fortunately, speech therapists and other professionals can teach your child to improve these skills, which can improve their functioning and social skills.
Professional Resources for Formal or Unusual Language in Childhood
If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of their learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help.
- Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider symptoms in a mental health context, seek a comprehensive evaluation
- School psychologist: to test IQ, anxiety, social skills and consider the academic impact
- Speech and language pathologist: to provide language assessment and then therapy at school can happen at lunchtime or during recess for a natural social environment. Maybe in a group, or the therapist may come into the classroom to facilitate social learning, conversation, and shared interests
- Social group: to support your child in developing reciprocal communication skills. These groups are often facilitated by a social worker, counselor, or psychologist. Although the focus may be on games or interests, social groups place an emphasis on social and conversation skills. Make sure your child is matched with children of a similar age or language level when finding a social group.
Similar Conditions to Challenges with Formal or Unusual Language in Childhood
If your child is struggling with a similar problem not directly addressed in this article, see the list below for information about other related symptom areas.
- Restricted interests: sometimes kids who get very interested in certain topics will use highly specific or unusual language to communicate
- Repetitive language: sometimes kids who repeat phrases or words may use an overly formal or professorial tone in their communication
- Scripted or echoed language: sometimes kids who like to repeat phrases from movies, videos, or video games may use overly formal language to communicate
- Narrative coherence: sometimes kids who have trouble telling stories may also struggle with an overly formal or professorial style of communication
- Pragmatic language: sometimes kids who are having difficulties with social language may also use formal or unusual language to communicate
Resources For Formal or Unusual Language in Childhood
Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.
Berns, Roberta M. (2010). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support.
Mendler, Allen (2013). Teaching your students how to have a conversation.
Ozonoff, Sally & Dawson, Geraldine & McPartland, James C. (2014). A parent’s guide to high functioning autism spectrum disorder: How to meet the challenges and help your child thrive.
UCLA PEERS Clinic https://www.semel.ucla.edu/peers
Giler, Janet Z. (2000). Socially ADDept: A manual for parents of children with ADHD and / or learning disabilities.
Giler, Janet Z. (2011). Socially ADDept: Teaching social skills to children with ADHD, LD, and Asperger’s.
Baker, Jed. (2006) Social skills picture book for high school and beyond.
Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.
Gray, Carol & Attwood, Tony (2010). The New Social Story Book, Revised and Expanded 10th Anniversary Edition: Over 150 Social Stories that Teach Everyday Social Skills to Children with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and their Peers.
McConnell, Nancy & LoGuidice (1998). That’s Life! Social language.
Fein, Deborah (2011). “The Neuropsychology of Autism”
Children’s books on social skills
Brown, Laurie Krasny & Brown, Marc (2001). How to be a friend: A guide to making friends and keeping them (Dino life guides for families).
Meiners, Cheri. (2003). Understand and care.
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