Thursday, December 8, 2011

Learning to Speak

A Bible story from thousands of years ago tells of a mighty tower that was built to touch the heavens. Seeing that man was growing brash, God decided to slow down man’s progress a bit by forcing everyone working on the Tower of Babel to speak a different language. Unable to communicate with each other, the workers went their separate ways, and the tower was left unfinished. (This curse has repercussions still today. Just try finding someone to work on your house who speaks the same language as you.) 

Parents of toddlers face a similar curse. We spend the first eighteen or so months of a child’s life being unable to understand him. Hunger, dirty diapers, thirst, exhaustion, and injury are all communicated with the same sound: crying.

Then the magical day comes: a child speaks his first word. For parents, this is an unbelievably joyful day.

He said his first word. Tomorrow he’ll add a few more. Next week he’ll be speaking in sentences. Soon after that, he can begin learning Mandarin. Medical school will surely follow. We’ll retire to that beach house yet!

Our expectations may not be entirely realistic.

My son’s first word was shoes. Once he realized that by repeating the same sound a few times he could get his parents to hold up the item in question and make complete fools of themselves, he began to seek other applications of this new skill. More words followed, and our house soon became a menagerie of concrete nouns. Then came the day he learned the word every parent hopes their child will never say…

No. It was inevitable, I guess. After more than a year of hearing things like no touching the stove, no throwing food, and no pulling the neighbor’s cat’s tale, the word was bound to surface in context. It is a harrowing day when you realize that your child can express a will contrary to yours.

Soon the word began infiltrating all manner of conversation:
Let’s go get in the car.
Let’s put our coat on.
Let’s eat some of our peas.
Let’s skip dinner and have a dessert of ice cream covered brownies slathered in caramel.

It is important to remember at times like these that language acquisition is a gift, not a curse. It’s only when your child asks to borrow the car for a cross country road trip that you’ll find yourself wishing you spoke a different language.


  1. I enjoyed this! I would also like to add that "no" means no in more than eight languages. So your child is already multilingual!

  2. "A menagerie of concrete nouns." Love it.