When I want to say the right thing, something truly beautiful, it’s usually best if I just don’t say anything at all. Sometimes I get lucky and say the right thing, but more often than not, words just gum things up.
My son Jacob is on the precipice of speaking English. His vocabulary and comprehension increase every day. I’m eager for him to tell me, with great detail, exactly what the cuss he’s pointing at and why he’s screaming and crying and turning into a wet noodle. On the other hand, I always get the point.
My paranoid self suspects the little rascal is stunting his own development. It’s like he’s not interested in the boatload of responsibility we’ll throw his way when he can talk. Really, I don’t blame him. In a way, I feel inclined to shelter the guy from all that.
Recently, we were all sitting at the dinner table; Elouise, our first child, was having a difficult time keeping her hair out of her dinner, but she refused to go get herself a headband. Jacob and I locked eyes. “Go get your sister a headband from the brown bowl in her bedroom.” He whittled himself out of his high chair and ran madly out of the room. We waited with bated breath. Did he actually understand what was asked of him?
With a big smile and cheery eyes, he ran back into the kitchen. Dutifully, he gave the headband to Elouise. In one of his first demonstrations of language comprehension, he decided to act with love. This is a good omen. We’ll have to remember it when he tries to pull the scalp off his sister.
I know he has the ability to speak. He will just muster words to ask for things when he is tired of screaming for them. When this occurs, the thing will be given to him. The fire of language will ravage the prairie that is preverbal Jacob.
Maybe it’s weird, but the whole thing makes me kind of sad.
The thing that bugs me out is how is he learning to speak. There is nothing our family can do about the way we talk. Yes, my swearing has decreased, I tend to say fewer negative things about our neighbors (though I do a fair amount of spelling out loud) and my overall tone is more thoughtful than it used to be. Thankfully, my wife has the voice of a songbird and only (read: mostly) says kind words. I am curious if the content of our speech is influencing Jacob’s language development, not so much in terms of syntax—I know the kid is going to utter words—but more the fundamental understanding of language.
The big thing he does not know, which seems pretty monumental to me, is that his actions—and soon his words—will soon be the metric by which he is measured. We will have to teach our kids this gigantic lesson, and it seems a little overwhelming. Like, maybe we will not have the language to impart such a drastic truth.
Elouise absorbed American Sign Language like a sponge. She was barely one, and had about thirty signs at her disposal. She used sign to describe feelings like hunger, pain and thirst; she signed emotions like sadness, fear, and desire. She made incredible eye contact with long, lovely coherent gazes. The result of how she acquired language is her ability to create strong bonds with people through communicating her feelings, wants and observations—and inquiring about their feelings, wants, and observations.
The words Jacob uses clearly are mama, outside, and no. The difference of interest and will to acquire language between the two is remarkable. I’d like to think that my wife and I offered our second child the same tools and attention that we offered our first. Maybe we got lazy, or maybe Jacob duped us into leaving him alone.
We tried to teach him all the same signs we taught our daughter, and he remains mostly interested in the sign for nursing, open, where, hurt, and some other sign that we do not know what he is talking about. Other than that, he remains uninterested in learning sign language to describe experiences, which is totally fine with me. He is a different dude, and I accept that.
Eventually, he’s going to use words to lie. He will also use words to speak truth. I know that we are only responsible for a portion of the result, but I feel pretty well tied to that portion.
If I could ever get together with a guy like renowned linguistics expert Noam Chomsky, I’d tell him I feel a little hopeless. I’d be all worked up and would probably order another beer. I might look him in his eyes and beg for him to understand me: I just want Jacob to retain his innocence, but I also want him to grow up strong.
I think my kid is a totally amazing ball of light and I do not want to see his essence dimmed by the generative or behavioral acquisition of a language that will never fit quite right.
I’m afraid that language will sully this free and unbridled boy. I am forced to deal with wanting to protect him and teach him at the same time. So, in between the slander, gossip, and cussing, I try to speak with kindness, love, and clarity. And with any luck, those are the things that Jacob and Elouise will pick up on.
I know this stage will be over soon. He will garner the will, physiology, or cognition to speak to us, and this whole matter will over. He will have lost one freedom in place of another; the dividends will be independence and consequence. While words may be cumbersome and he may be at a loss for them, he will have to choose them wisely, because the people he meets will remember him by those words. It has only taken me, like, 30 years to learn that one—and I still have a long way to go.