To Learn a Language:

Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s Children’s Works.

by Claire Baldwin


This essay examines Barbauld’s philosophy of language as exhibited by her Lessons For Children series, as well as Evenings At Home, a collaborated work with her brother. An introduction to the finer points of the author’s life is provided for back-ground, including her position as an influential member of the children’s literature revolution in the late 1700s. The focus is on her own education and her involvement, as an adult, with the education of other children.

This study of the author’s ideas on language proposes that Barbauld sees language as the key to all knowledge and conveys the philosophies surrounding this idea in the two previously mentioned children’s works. The essay is divided into two parts; the author’s manipulation of language in the texts (sometimes referred to as language as a vehicle), and her use of language as the content of the works.

The former concern is examined in terms of her consideration of her audience’s abilities. Barbauld tailors the presentation of her material for the purpose of inciting literacy in young children. This is the key to her philosophy. This argument also examines the nature of the author’s language in the books, mainly in terms of format and tone (the first being questions and answers, and the second being unsentimental).

The idea of tone echoing the lessons contained within the text brings to light the subject of language as content. This looks first at the effect of the constant ‘naming’ of articles throughout the works and how it demonstrates what a child ought to know. The study focuses mainly on the dominance of ‘scientific’ terms as the language of choice.

This practice of ‘naming’ is related to John Locke’s theories on language and education in relation to "Things by Their Right Names" and other stories from Evenings At Home. Barbauld is determined to have been influenced by Locke’s theories, as these stories are literal examples of them. It is thought that the abstract concepts that they present (the gap between sign and signifier and other deficiencies of the language) are highly advanced for Barbauld’s intended audience. However, it is concluded that these finer points of the language are necessary in order to turn language into a useful tool at the child’s disposal.

Finally, and in relation to the last point, the paper presents Barbauld’s own contemplation on language in relation to children, as examined in her introduction to her Hymns In Prose For Children.