THE MYSTERY OF LANGUAGE

Language is the central point that makes us human beings different. We all can speak, even the feeble-minded have a large vocabulary. No one can predict what a baby will do in the world, but it is evident that without speaking he would do very little. The power to think is bound up with language. Even very intelligent people would not be able to accomplish very much without being able to communicate with others. To carry out any project people must deliberate and agree.

Language is also a wall which hems us in. Each ethnic group has one, and when they speak they exclude all others. There are expressions of agreement which those not “in the know” will never understand. Pronunciations are exact, the slightest deviation is noticed and commented upon. Languages bind people together and set them apart more than national boundaries. It is the mother tongue that does it, not the languages we learn later.

Adults get very emotional about language. Babies are much more emotional about it than we think. Languages of the world are kept alive by babies. Invaders who wish to keep control of a population try to stamp out the language by preventing the babies from learning it. They know that the parents cling to the language they learned so very young, that they can never change. It is not rational to cling to one’s mother tongue since people say more or less the same things in every language. Languages are learned by babies with a quiver of joy and the joy of speaking them remains with us.

A child has the power to absorb any language in any society- provided he hears it spoken or sung. Yes, music is a language too. Every child who hears language spoken or sung cannot help but learn it. Yet we adults know how much work it takes to learn a language. When we study a foreign language we must take lessons, study the grammar, memorize vocabulary and practice making sentences. We already know the difference between words and sentences, we already know what grammar is, we already know the little words like “is” or “the.”

The child must do this and much more. He must not only learn the language, but at the same time learn what language is, how it is possible to express oneself with words. He must deduce that the sounds coming from the human mouths are saying something. He must come to realize that everything has a name. He must pick out individual words from the flow of sound, recognize a word he has heard before and link it to a new situation. The same words are used over and over in different situations, making it even trickier.

Our child must also deal with words such as “up” and “down” which don’t name anything concrete at all. There must be some experience here to illustrate the difference, and there must be some idea of opposites and why we use them. Someone must say these words at the right time and in the right place, because words like this are only good for naming ideas. It thus follows that our child must learn what an idea is. A lot of ideas must be built from scratch before anyone can talk.

Grammar is usually thought by fourth and fifth-graders to be terribly dull. Why not? They have covered it years ago. One must get the words in the right order or they won’t mean anything at all to anyone else. One must realize that talking is expressing yourself to another person who knows the same words you do. One must learn to form plurals, how to make questions, how to use prefixes and suffixes, past tenses of verbs, even the irregular ones. All this takes a lot of work.

Much study goes on today as to how children learn to speak, and it is generally thought that they do not so much learn it as create it from the words they hear. The process is formidable. Babies must listen carefully, recognize that when people speak they are communicating. Then they must pick out words, recognize that the words can be names of the things they see, but not all words. They must know the rhythm and cadence of speech. The word order in the sentences is very precise. They must recognize questions and statements. In the very beginning they don’t even know that people and things have names at all. They also have not had the experiences they hear described. In addition they must be able to reproduce the sounds by imitating throat movements, lip movements, cheek movements. It is a formidable task, to be accomplished within the first two years of life, along with learning to crawl, walk, climb, manipulate things with the hands, etc. etc. It is no wonder that they are obsessed with it.

In order to do this there must be keen desire, something we usually don’t ascribe to children, certainly not to babies. We know they want to get their own way, but we think of it in terms of gaining power over us, not in terms of learning language. Actually they couldn’t do all this without the special powers given to them from time to time. There is a special mechanism for language that fades as we get older. During these early years there seems to be no limit to how many languages they can learn, provided they hear them spoken about them. Sometimes twins will create a secret language of their own in addition.

Only a child can internalize a language. We now know that every new sound, taste, smell, feel and sight fires up the neurons in the brain, makes new connections, and in the case of babies even creates new ones. No wonder it is an exciting experience! It is the building up of intelligence itself.

To facilitate this long and arduous process our child is given a large dose of curiosity, the impulse to imitate, the facility for hearing minute differences in sound, and the strong desire to pay close attention to all this. We think that babies’ attention span is small, but this is because the baby is paying such close attention that he learns a word the first time he hears it. If you do not believe this, just let someone use profanity only once. It is in the mind forever.

It is generally believed that we are born with a special mechanism in the brain for language. Part of the frontal lobe of the brain seems to be reserved for it. The baby is not born with any particular language, but is born with a mechanism for making a language of his own, using the sounds he hears. In the first year of life the mechanism is hard to see, but is being studied widely today. It has been found that after a month or two a baby can distinguish sounds in every language of the world. Each sound is remembered so well that every new one, no matter how tiny, makes our baby take note. After the first year this ability begins to fade until the adult is able to reproduce only the sounds of the languages he knows.

The timetable for acquiring language is in the first two years before adults think their children understand anything much. Adults are still trying to “train” them.   Children demand the chance to listen and imitate and are inconsolable if adults want any time to themselves. They are completely wrapped up in their own needs and you are part of it. There is so much excitement in listening that they cannot bear to stop. They think that surely you must have much the same excitement.

Adults tend to think that language develops with speaking ability, that because babies babble and then say single words that they don’t understand much in the first year. Actually the baby can usually understand a conversation after nine or ten months if it is not too profound, and can probably understand a simple story long before that. Mothers insist that they know many words even before that, and they are probably right.

Language also requires abstract thinking which we do not usually ascribe to small children. It seems to be instinctive. In order to say the word “hat” with any confidence one needs to have some sort of experience with hats, some sort of interest in them. A child needs to have seen her own hat, those of her parents and of guests, and to be able to use the word for a hat she has never seen before. Almost all sounds are the names of a class of things rather than a particular thing. Classification is a very sophisticated form of thinking, begins in the first year of life, as soon as there are a few things to sort out. You can’t sort out words unless you hear them quite a bit, and you can’t do that in a crib looking at the ceiling.

We look at babies as very cute and marvel at every bit of memory we see, but we do not stop to think how much work the little things are actually doing. When we see them “discover” some word we are really looking at the results of a very great deal of thinking. The ability to classify, to invent pigeon-holes for everything, seems to be built into the human brain. It is like an internal database with no known limit for the accumulation of data or classifications.

The key to all this is interest, and the baby’s interest in words is probably keener than it will ever be again. Actually it will fade after the age of seven, languages will not come quite so readily. It reaches heights of joy and delight where the baby will quiver with excitement. At times you will see a dull, stupid look, at which times everything is going in pellmell. At these times they are mulling over what they have heard, trying to make sense out of it all.

Even with the special sensitivities, languages must be learned one word at a time, so there is much work involved. We miss much pleasure if we don’t think about it or appreciate it. Within each child is an inner teacher with a specific timetable. First come the sounds, then the syllables. Words follow, then grammar, what to us adults seems the dullest part of the language, yet the child shows the keenest interest. First come the nouns, then adjectives, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, the tenses of verbs, verbs in the infinitive. And it all must be done by listening to adults who have no idea what is going on, adults who speak quickly, sometimes those who slur the words, even those with speech defects.

To know the name of a thing gives us the power to think about it. Once we know its name we can make a category for it and add to the category whenever we hear the name again. In the Old Stone Age people kept their personal names secret for fear of giving power to those who heard them. In the fairy tales heroes are named Jack or some other nickname. Small children are thus fascinated by nouns. If you have a fretful child, even too young to talk, try carrying it about the house naming the things in it. The fascination is so great that the child will forget its troubles. Even as adults we know all about name-dropping as a manipulative power. When school-age children are troublesome the use of long words will distract them very quickly. Teenagers do this sort of thing ad nauseum.

Children understand language long before they can talk, long before any adult realizes the fact. They can probably follow a conversation by six or eight months, so you should probably be careful in talking in front of them. It will help them greatly if you speak slowly, enunciating the words. It is not at all easy to pick out words from the jumble of noises, especially when two people are talking at once.

With all this to accomplish it is not surprising that children have no time to waste, even with their prodigious powers. They have no time to worry about anything else. Adults appear to be there strictly to help them, and they will demand help. They use up your time. They feel they have a right to get into everything to see what it is for and to find the words that go with it all. They do not want to get the best of you, that is an adult attribute, they just want to get on with life. With nothing to listen to how can they learn anything else. Desire is so great that left alone they will cry plaintively. They are quite happy if put into any room there things are going on, where people are talking, but true happiness comes when someone talks to them alone. Even then adults simply don’t seem to understand!

It is impressive that there is continuity of pronunciation from one generation to the next, no matter how difficult is the language. Accents vary geographically far more than they do historically.

There are a limited number of words in any language, but an unlimited number of sentences. Long before children can speak they have thought in sentences. Some children begin talking in sentences, sentences they have never heard before, expressing thoughts they wish to communicate. They do not parrot the adults, they do not usually ask for something to eat. Most children begin with single words, but they are usually nouns, naming something they want to talk about. “No” is frequently one of the first words.

Until the children begin to speak the adults invariably underestimate them. Babies are so cute, so delightful, that they are treated like dolls or like super-pets to be “trained”. They are slapped to “teach them a lesson”, then cuddled, as if they did not understand any other form of treatment.

The age at which children begin to speak varies widely. A few come out with a word by seven months, others sit about and smile for three years. There have been recent studies on this. It has been shown that the human larynx is positioned much lower in the throat than that of the apes who are able to breathe and swallow at the same time. Babies need to be able to do this, so that they come in with the larynx high. Then at some age it descends, at which time speech is possible. Mentally retarded children are often late talkers, but sometimes they talk quite early. Highly intelligent children are usually early talkers, but not always. It is possible that early talkers receive more adult attention and therefore become more intelligent.

There are some adults who retain the power to absorb language. They have not forgotten the “feel” of it. Most adults outgrow it, forget it and go on to more “mature” things.

Before talking occurs the babies seem unresponsive, so try out your own methods of communication. Ask questions that can be answered “yes” or “no” and show them how to shake the head for the proper response. Ask them to do something. If they don’t want to do it they will ignore you because that response works pretty well, but watch every little nuance of movement so that you can tell how much is understood. Ask them where something is, as that is a fascinating subject. Read stories over and over, each time asking whether the child wants to hear it again. That seems to aid the language process, though no one really knows how. Try everything possible to promote nonverbal communication, and you will be surprised every day. Listening is a skill devoutly to be cultivated, before and after talking occurs.

When children begin talking adults are usually impressed with the rapidity of it. They do not ordinarily correct the mistakes, seeming to know they are temporary. The sentence ?I bringed it.” is never used even in ungrammatical households. You can see by this and other mistakes that the children have internalized the rules of syntax before they know all the irregularities. Children are extremely sensitive about these things, as sensitive as adults to language correction. The best help you can give is to repeat the sentence grammatically. Why should it make a difference, anyway?

When children are late talkers adults try to help. However, they do not say to them, “Now you are old enough to talk, I will teach you. Let’s start with the easy words.” They are not completely insensitive.

This is an appeal to all parents to tune up your awareness. It is so easy to underestimate the language process, to take it for granted without appreciating it. After all, your child is like no other. This is a good time to remember the joy and excitement of it all, to relive some of these peak experiences. When you do it there is a sharing that is too great to ever miss.

 

by Marietta Rawson