Why listening to a toddler learn to talk should blow your mind
I’ve been thinking about how amazing language is lately.
Language is what makes us human. Sure, other animals can communicate, but not like we can. Humans can take a word (like ‘cat’) which sounds nothing like the noise a cat makes when you say it, and looks nothing like a cat when you write it, but which we all know refers the furry animal star of 90% of YouTube videos. It’s a pretty remarkable trick.
The fact that I can sit here, typing somewhat abstract thoughts about the very nature of communication, kind of blows my mind. Even Donald Trump, who pretty much just vomits grandiose claims every times he opens his stupid orange mouth, is doing something pretty miraculous when he speaks.
The reason I’ve become so interested in language recently is that at 20 months, the Popple is well into the toddler language-acquisition phase. After months of ‘dada’ on repeat, she can now correctly identify dozens of different objects, name about a third of the letters in the alphabet and count to 10. She can even say a few short sentences, including “Dada is silly”, “Bother that cat” (from the book ‘Mog the Forgetful Cat’, directed at our cat Milo when he’s being an a-hole) and “Mommy eats pan” (Pan being the Spanish word for bread. Yes, Mommy does have a thing for carbs. Thanks for noticing, Popple.).
I love how she uses a mixture of American and British English with the odd smattering of Spanish, a nod to our international household. I love how when can’t pronounce something, she figures out how to make it work. A ‘banana’ is a ‘nana’ and ‘butterfly’ is simply a ‘fly’. I love how hard she laughs when she tries a new word or phrase and says it correctly. Her newfound ability to express herself is such a source of joy for her – and for me. I make a living writing stuff, after all. I was an English major in college. Words are kind of my jam.
I’m impressed by how far her language has progressed in the past few months, but I can’t help but be staggered by how far she still has to go. How is she ever going to get from “Dada is silly” to “My father can be somewhat ridiculous at times, displaying a preference for the sort of fart jokes that amuse pre-pubescent boys”? How do any of us ever get there?
Somehow, most of us manage to progress from just naming objects to discussing how we feel about them. We figure out how to use language to talk about things that happened in the past and things that we hope might happen in the future. Every day, we express complex, conceptual thoughts like it’s nothing, when actually it’s the biggest something that there is. We were all babies once, babbling dadadadada at everything that we saw, and now look at us, arguing about how good La La Land really was, debating the finer points of Brexit and crafting brilliant anti-Trump protest slogans.
We are a pretty awesome species.