Jacinta and language

My second grandchild, Jacinta, who turns 2 tomorrow, is taking her sweet time learning how to talk. She forms endless strings of sounds as she plays, but these are not recognizable as words or sentences. She babbles. Letters and numbers fascinate her no end. She calls out their names like friends when she sees them in the street. Yet, except for these and the terms she uses for her father and mother, Jacinta appears hopelessly trapped in a private and unshared language.

Her parents, who are both teachers, are unperturbed. They have no problem communicating with her. But the rest of the adults who hover around this bright but seemingly linguistically-challenged baby cannot help but feel anxious. They ask her questions about many things, and they get disheartened when she does not deliver the expected response. Could she be deaf or mute or autistic, they quietly ask.

I have to confess to being at one time one of these silly adults who expect infants to know and say things they take for granted in daily life, forgetting that language is something that is acquired. Indeed, children pick up their mother language according to their own schedule, in pretty much the same way they learn how to crawl, sit up, stand up, and walk when they’re ready.  But, middle class families, ever conscious of the fiercely competitive world out there, are not content to patiently watch a child’s linguistic ability evolve.  More and more, they spend great effort to teach their children how to talk.  And when the results do not measure up to their expectations, they are prone to express their anxiety in the growing vocabulary of lack, deficit, or disability.

Unlike Julia, our first grandchild who lived with us until she entered grade school, Jacinta had her own home from the time she was born.  We would see her at best once a week during family lunches or celebrations. It took a while for her to warm up to anyone outside of her parents and yaya.  The change came when we all had a chance to go on vacation together and  stay in one house for more than a week. We soon discovered how funny, even-tempered, sociable, and affectionate this little girl is when she is in the presence of people with whom she feels comfortable.

Her eyes lit up whenever she saw me with my iPad. I was amazed to see how a little child, barely 2, could manage this formidable black tablet—press the switch-on button, slide the arrow on the screen to unlock it, and then scroll through pages of icons to find and activate her favorite game—all without the benefit of a manual.  She would sometimes take my index finger and use it to press an unfamiliar icon, thinking perhaps that her finger would not work on any other program than her favorite “Talking Tom.”  I would oblige her, but then also show her that her fingers could do the trick just as well. The realization of her own authority over the machine never failed to bring a smile of achievement across her face. Truly, hers is a generation that is unfazed by technology.

But it was not the encounter with technology that manifested to me the humanity and intelligence of this child. What did was her overflowing sense of humor. One day, Ani, Jacinta’s mother, dropped her off at our house so I could see her while she attended a meeting on campus. I decided we would take a leisurely stroll in our neighborhood while munching soda crackers.

As we walked, I began to talk to her as I would to the older Julia. I got no response; she remained busy with her biscuit. Yet, each time I paused, she would look up to me with knowing eyes and a smile. When I thought no one else was within hearing distance, I started to sing the alphabet song, hoping that this little girl would oblige her professor lolo by joining him in a routine that I knew she had mastered so well. Unable to coax a response from her, I paused in the middle of the song, feigning an inability to recall the next letters. That moment broke the ice between us.

She stopped walking and started to laugh.  Catching her breath while still giggling, she gave me a patronizing look, and, like a choir master, helped me with the next set of nine letters—“h,i,j,k-l-m-n-o-p.” Now that the roles had been reversed, she quickly shifted to numbers, counting one to ten, and then, backward, from ten to one. In an effort to recover my pride, I countered with “Twinkle, twinkle little star.” Instinctively, she responded by acting out the images while humming the words. I told myself that one of these days, I would surprise her with lines from “Alice in Wonderland” even as her other lolo, the poet Virgilio Almario, might regale her with some finely crafted Tagalog verses. My hope is that when she is older she will remember me as funny rather than silly.

As a sociologist, I expect myself to be better informed about children and the complex process of language acquisition than the average grandparent. Alas, I am not. But, reading the path-breaking work of the psycholinguist, Steven Pinker, has not only lessened my ignorance, it has also made me appreciate the amazing work that babies like Jacinta do to learn a language and become part of the human family. “The infant,” writes Pinker, ‘’is like a person who has been given a complicated piece of audio equipment bristling with unlabeled knobs and switches but missing the instruction manual…. By listening to their own babbling, babies in effect write their own instruction manual; they learn how much to move which muscle in which way to make which change in the sound. This is a prerequisite to duplicating the speech of their parents.” (“The Language Instinct,” p. 269)

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