a door opens
11 April 2000

We learn to hear before we learn to speak.




Twisting around the tongue.

Tripping off the tongue.

Abstract vowel-consonant combinations that symbolize objects, actions, feelings.

How on earth do we learn to talk?

Damian’s had a cognitive burst this past week. I knew it was coming. No, I’d hoped it was coming. Part of me wondered if my precious wonderful charming adorable son was somehow lacking in this area, if I was going to be an overly verbal mother to a silent but awfully cute kid who spent his teen years pointing silently and eating only pasta wheels and strawberries while looking soulfully into the eyes of the girl -- or boy-- of his desires. And when she -- or he -- says "do you love me?" he’d just smile with his eyes upturned like half moons and say "cat" and "good good" because his vocabulary would be stuck at an eighteen month old level.

Okay, maybe not quite that bad. But I did wonder when it was going to come, this language explosion. Many of his MayToddler colleagues are ahead of him on the word curve. Some are behind. One of his playgroup buddies is only eighteen months old and ahead of him in language. I know intellectually that it makes absolutely no difference when language is acquired, as long as it is. I know it is no measure of intelligence or aptitude or anything else. I know too that milestones tend to happen a little late in my family. But to be a parent is to worry. To be a parent is to imagine worst case scenarios. To be a parent is to wait and wonder and act cool and bite your lip and fret inside. And then one day it happens, something clicks into place, and to be a parent is to be the proudest person on the planet, walking around with a huge grin and a giddy heart.

It started last week with vocalizations along the lines of "coo doo" and "oo-oo doo." Sounded like more jabbering, more babble. Sounds like words, it’s got the cadence of speech but in some foreign baby-only tongue. They call this jargoning, as if my budding linguist speaks in specialized jargon just like a computer jock or a film techie.

But he kept saying coo doo and oo doo and I suddenly noticed the sounds were perfectly synchronized with his little hands swinging the heavy front door to and fro. "Oo-oo doo" and the door would open. "Coo doo" and it would close.

Oh. Right.

And once I agreed that he was "opening" and "closing" the "door," he started imparting more information. Commenting as we left the house that I was putting the "key" in the "lock" of the "door." And "opening" the "car door." And sitting him into the "car seat." And when I head to the bathroom, he’ll tell me exactly what goes on there. I’ve got a narrator relating all the important activities in our lives. He told me I had a hot dog for lunch yesterday. He told me he saw some bees on our walk. He told me I was fetching the boppy (nursing pillow) for a nursing session and thanked me for rolling up his sweat pants ("tnk").

It’s an extraordinary thing, watching the brain expand, watching synapses connect that have never connected before. Neural pathways burned for the very first time. There’s a lot of nonsense in parenting books about how the first three years are crucial, how your child will never have as many brain cells as he does right now, how you have to take advantage of it and stuff as much knowledge and experience into him now as possible. Gotta hang onto as many cells as you can to make a smart kid out of him! The so called experts forget that simply living and interacting and exploring offer so much stimulation and challenge that they need all those extra cells to just figure out the world around them.

Such a profound shift, acquiring words and sentences. Gulping them whole, digesting them and incorporating into those hyperactive brain cells.

Such a delight, being able to carry on a conversation, no matter how primitive, with a child who is not yet two. Who still has baby-chubby cheeks and a gently protruding tummy. Who cries out in confusion in the middle of the night when he rolls into the guard rail. Whose eyes get huge, the pupils fully dilated, at the sight of a toy helicopter in an older boy’s bedroom.

A child who is still so young in so many ways. And whose language is still so tentative and groping, who says "da" for yes and "da for ball and "da" for box and "daaa" for dark, not to mention "dada" for daddy. Context is all. But out of such simple shapes are complex ideas born. And more than ideas. Preverbal is pre-memory for most of us. Damian’s memories of childhood will begin now, or if not now, then next week or next month. Does the past exist if we don’t remember it, if we have no words for it? My son is stepping into the world of the known.

Last week I gave him a bath. Dan usually does this, so I didn’t know Damian has started climbing out of the tub when he’s done. So when he stood up, dripping wet and slender, and started to lift his leg to straddle the wide porcelain edge, I was amazed and said, "I didn’t know you could do that!"

He said, "I a big kid."


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