In college I took a Linguistics class. It was, by far, the most difficult course in the English department at Ohio Wesleyan University, because, unlike its fellows, this one couldn’t be bullshitted through with a good paper. Linguistics is the study of human language, how we speak and the differences in dialect. It’s basically a science class masquerading as and English one. Dr. DeMarco was the professor, if memory serves, and she was fantastic, boiling things down so even the dullest of us could understand. And, unlike a lot of other classes I took, I actually remember a lot of what I learned off the top of my head. I actually had sat in on one of her classes as a senior in high school while visiting the school and still remember the discussion that day, it was about how different parts of the country have different names for fireflies (aka lightning bugs, etc). Wild.
I could regale you with trivia like why we speak English instead of the more prominent Dutch in this country, but that’s not really pertinent to the topic. The stuff that really stuck with me has to do with language development in children. We were taught a theory that basically that any baby born anywhere in the world has the potential to learn any language, which explains why babies born in one country can move to another and learn the native language. Basically, the idea is that babies are born with a kind of circuit breaker when it comes to language that includes the building blocks of every language, from the heavy back-of-the-throat sounds of German to the tongue clicks found in some African tribes. As the child grows and gets used to whatever language is around them, the circuits either stay on or get turned off with lack of use. So, for instance, a baby in Africa would keep the click sounds on while an American child would turn them off because they’re not a part of the dialect or language. However, if the child is taught several different languages, the circuits will stay on and the kid will have a much better chance of being multlingual than a middle age dude trying to learn French for his next business trip. His circuits are old and rusted into place though with enough practice, they can be loosened.
Another story Dr. DeMarco told us explained that children actually understand language long before they can use it. The story involved a linguist and his daughter. The girl hadn’t quite gotten the hang of Ls yet, so instead of saying “light” she said “yight.” When her dad went to turn the light off he referred to it as yight and she got upset, saying “not yight, YIGHT.” She knew the difference, but just couldn’t say it. It’s like understanding how hockey works, but not being able to skate, control the puck and hit people all at the same time. The ideas are there, but the mechanics aren’t.
I think about these things a lot with Lucy. Communication is very important on all kinds of levels, but especially the basic ones. They say you can figure out the difference between their cries, which I guess I’m starting to get on at least a visceral level. I couldn’t explain to you what a hungry cry sounds like as opposed to a gassy cry, but when they’re happening, I can feel it. My wife and I are trying to do sign language, starting off with basics, but it’s impossible to see if anything’s getting through to her this early (she doesn’t really have control of her hands anyway).
But that doesn’t mean I don’t try. I also make it a point to go through the alphabet sounds with her every day as you can see in the video above (I started taping with F). I try to get up close to her face and open my mouth as much as possible to she can potentially see what my mouth and tongue are doing to make the sounds. Another big part of that Linguistics class–and another reason it was so damn hard–was learning the different kinds of sounds your mouth makes and learning a mostly-new alphabet to spell words with using phonemes (the vowels were the hardest, think about how many different sounds they make). I can’t remember the alphabet right now, but I do think about how different sounds are made. For instance, the little girl who was trying to say light was making the Y sound in the back of her throat and with the back of her tongue while the L sound is made with the tongue right up near the teeth. It’s not something you really think about when talking because it comes naturally thanks to the circuit breaker, but something I’m trying to remember when teaching my daughter. Maybe it will help and maybe it won’t, but at least she seems to have a good time during out “lessons.”