15 December 2010

Content, Context, Content

We really fail to fully appreciate the miracle by which children learn to speak and, by extension, to read. And how that miracle builds the future.

Probably many of us have seen the movie The Miracle Worker, and have all had the same goose-bumpy moment when Helen finally connects the motion of Anne Sullivan's fingers, and the feel of the cool wetness, with that one word from her babyhood - water.  You think about the hundreds of thousands of repetitions it took to provoke that epiphanal moment, and you wonder how your own children manage it with what seems like far less intervention.

Child-brains are sponges way more efficient that a sham-wow. We know this because they can catalog back to us every rude thing we've ever said when we thought they weren't listening. Which brings us to my theory of how kids learn language.

When our babies are born, we can't seem to resist talking to them. They look as intently at us as anyone ever will in our lives. In a way, they are a captive audience to anything and everything we have to say; we hold their totally dependent selves in our arms in such as way as to maximize communication. Think about it. How many times in our lives will anyone (much less our children) pay such attention to us? I believe this is not accidental - I think it has to be part of the great design of how knowledge is passed from one generation to the next.

Even new babies process our speech efficiently and immediately. They identify the sound of our voices: they know Dad from Mom. They know Mom from Aunt Bella. They know when Mom is cross. Soon, they know communicative sounds: singing, the shhh sound to calm them, the funny clicks and buzzes we do to amuse them. Eventually, they match words to results: eat to food to tummy-feels-better, for example. They discover their own ability to make sounds, and learn each sound's different response.

A working vocabulary is built on experience. Bed, toy, cookie, blanket, dog, etc. are the currency of day-to-day living. Well before a child can read, they can express their needs and observations in highly articulate ways. A child has an excellent foundation of functional vocabulary well before school age. After that, the skill becomes recognizing the word visually as well as aurally. Reading and writing, then, enable children to partake of a more permanent and dimensional use of language. Plus reading builds in them a vocabulary that goes beyond material usage. It helps them describe non-concrete situations such as feelings, impressions and ideas.

Once a child's enthusiasm for new language acquisition takes off, it becomes our obligation as parents to see to it that their lexical world is filled with constructive language. More than just the accumulation of vocabulary, children absorb our ideas, philosophies, and perspectives. Unfortunately, they can also absorb our prejudices, our phobias, our criticisms and our cynicisms. Even if we find evidence of these things in ourselves, we can spare our children those burdens.

Providing children with the tools for expression, communication and community is the first gift we give them as currency toward their future. Like clean air and clean water, our legacy should be a vocabulary filled with unsullied observation of their world: words filled with optimism and hopefulness. Much as we would not have them drink polluted water, we can refrain from teaching them words of fear, hate, intolerance, and anger, leaving those tucked away where we hope they never acquire them, knowing that just as toxic chemicals can harm their bodies, toxic words can harm their confidence and their souls.

Consider what Byron had to say:
"But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
  Falling like dew upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think."

Isn't it amazing to consider that the the potential of a better world is available in the words we give our children today. 

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