Friday, September 15, 2017

On learning one's native language

It's a fascinating process to watch. Goomba is now almost two and has a lot of single words and a few pat phrases like "out, daddy" and "more, please," but putting words together in new ways poses all kinds of problems. In August, she learned about cars and trucks and buses, and become obsessed with pointing them out whenever we saw one, which is really quite often when you live in a house on a street in America.

We have a bus stop right in front of our house, so buses were a special attraction, and once school started, I pointed out to her the different between city bus ("see-bus") and school bus ("shoo-bus"). This was very exciting! She would chant see-bus and shoo-bus all day to herself, whether in the presence of buses or not. And then we came across a new form of transportation: the firetruck. However, because she was so enthralled by buses, she couldn't wrap her mind around the idea of this big, red bus being called a truck. So it became known as "firebus." And she sat in her carseat happily chanting "firebus firebus firebus" for days in spite of my continual response "no, fireTRUCK." Then, after a week of firebus, she finally switched to firetruck (actually, something more like "firetuck").

We thought she was interested in the category of things that go - logical! - but it turns out that she's more interested in expanding the newly-discovered categories of "bus" and "fire." She wants to know about every kind of bus, and also every kind of fire. From firetruck, we get fireplace, fireflies. We also have to discuss fire itself (which makes me nervous).

Eighteen months really marked a magical mental leap. It was like her mind reached out grasped a big new chunk of the world and ingested it (big proportional to her size; she's still got a lot of world left to ingest), and she suddenly understood and could communicate all kinds of new things. She's been like a qualitatively different creature ever since. I now recommend 18 months as the best turning point to all my friends with younger babies.


Lindsay Lennox said...

I have a nearly-2-year-old and also noticed this big giant conceptual leap in the last couple of months. A few notable occurrences:

-he knows his older brother's name and can use a combination of words and gestures to indicate what he wants big brother to do. (Big brother is a 3-year-old tornado so no results from this new communicative ability yet.)

-he analogizes! This morning he was trying on someone's mules/slides, and described it as a 'foot tunnel' (he is extremely into tunnels, which he believes also include bridges).

-he makes jokes, like calling something the wrong color, then looking at his parents closely to see if they correct him, laugh, or don't notice. He thinks this is hilarious.

Emily Hale said...

I agree about 18-month-olds. Life got so much better. If only we could give birth to 18-month-olds. Although that could give rise to new problems. And can I recommend to you 3 years? Nothing is better than this!

Miss Self-Important said...

LL: Yes, the joking is a big surprise. How can they do that?

EH: I am looking forward to 3 as well!

educatedwhinge said...

Did you try baby sign language? My 9 month old has learned how to sign for 'milk'. It's like the 'slab!' language game in Philosophical Investigations. I don't understand how she can learn to sign commands and names absent a grammar.

Miss Self-Important said...

The milk sign is so vulgar! My daughter knew "more" and "all done," which she used inconsistently, but I think later than 9 months.

I've never read Wittgenstein, but I don't understand your objection. She's just signing a thing; why does she need a grammar? Milk only occurs in the context of "I want!", never in the other sorts of contexts (eg., "tastes better than yesterday!" or "is sour!") that would necessitate grammatical flexibility.

Andrew Stevens said...

This is actually where both Wittgenstein and the people who try to teach gorillas sign language get it wrong. American sign language certainly is a language, but when used by tiny babies or gorillas, it isn't a real language any more than Wittgenstein's builder language is. It's just a sign system, which many animals in the wild have.

An instructive passage in this regard is the famous one in Helen Keller's autobiography where she realizes that the sign she had been using for water actually meant water. Here we have a person who was old enough to understand and remember what was happening when she first grasped the concepts of abstract thought and language, denied to her at younger ages due to being both blind and deaf. (She, of course, was already capable of abstract thought when it happened, but not able to communicate it.) This was a huge breakthrough for her and she quite suddenly found herself capable of using language in sophisticated ways. This happens to babies as well (though they don't remember it and it's a gradual process), but of course it never happens to gorillas.

Joanne Jacobs said...

We recently visited my stepdaughter's in-laws, including Cousin Amos (15 months). Amos is adamant that every four-legged animal is a "cow." Grandson Luke (2+) did this with "cat," but has no moved on to more sophisticated classification.