The Wondrous Language of Children

Kids learn all the time. They learn by observation, by imitation, by experimentation and by play. Our three children, by virtue of their own personal learning styles, interests and sets of strengths and weaknesses, provide us with a fascinating variety of ways to look at the world, organize it, and make sense of it. Language and logic are two of their most important tools.


Our eldest was an early talker. Even as a mere 4-year-old, he liked to bandy about such sesquipedalian words as episode, metaphor, and rhinoceroses. One of his first words was “bah-tee,” meaning “blanket.” Always eager to learn but loath to accept guidance, he continued to pronounce it like that for a very long time. Around the time he was well over a year old, I would, in a typical exchange, point to his blanket, then look him in the eye and say, annunciating all vowels and consonants slowly and clearly, “blanket.” In response, he would shake his head, look straight back at me, and say, annunciating just as clearly and slowly, “baaaah-teee.” This scene would repeat until one of us gave up. And when I say one of us, I mean me.

One of our twin girls remained wordless for a long time. Quietly she would play for hours with her collection of about 40 small but accurate Schleich animals. I’d tell her the names (“African elephant,” “snowy owl,” “giant panda”), mention something about their habitats (“Tigers live in India and Indonesia”), and imitate their sounds (“A frog says “ribbit.”) Side note: frogs say “ribbit” only in the English-speaking world. For example, Dutch-speaking frogs say “kwaak.”

Within days of her first uttering of a word, she had mastered the names of about forty animals, together with their habitats and sounds. She must have stored away all this information in her memory, to be released the moment her nascent speaking skills allowed her.

The many questions our other daughter asks are a frequent source of head-scratching. (Everything she says is in the form of a question.) With her language skills still in a rudimentary state, she calls our street “Apple Cracker.” (It sounds only a little bit like that.) She has been calling “dessert” “zuh-dirt” for months now, despite our efforts to correct her. (Joining what we couldn’t beat, we’ve all now taken to calling it “zuh-dirt.” I am seriously considering omitting dessert from dinner entirely, just to get that word out of our heads.)

She is thinking about concepts of past, present and future; baffling questions like “When is it going to be summer last year?” or “Is Nana coming over yesterday?” show that she hasn't mastered the subject of time fully yet. More than once she has asked me, immediately after waking up early, “Are we going to eat dinner now?” Days of the week remain a work in progress: “Is today Tuesday?” No. “Wednesday?” No. “Tuesday?” No. “Wednesday?”

After I told her she’d grown too big for a particular T-shirt, she asked, “Can I wear it when I’m smaller?”

Topsy-turvy children’s logic is at work in her question “Is it raining because I’m wearing my boots?”

When she spotted a classmate’s very similar looking sibling, she asked, “Are you your brother?”

Speaking of brothers: she envies her older brother. Since he is older and a boy, she clearly expects one day to be older and a boy too. Last week, when I told her “No, you can’t watch TV,” she said, “Can I watch TV when I’m a boy?” Aware of anatomical differences between genders, she asked me yesterday, “When I’m a boy, can you bring me a penis?”

I know all this confusion is just a phase that will pass. I hope it won’t be soon, though. I’m really enjoying it.

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