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HOW TO GET BY IN BABY LANGUAGE

When my son was born I took an oath never to write about him in print. Unless, that is, watching him had helped me formulate a major new theory about children which would be of help to all, or at least get me in line for a Nobel Prize for Child-Watching. Well, today is such a day, as I think I may have stumbled across something that will help to explain children’s behaviour more accurately than scientists have managed heretofore.

It’s to do with the way babies learn to speak. My 16 month old son has got to the stage where he can understand a lot of what we say - such as, ‘Put that cat down!’ ‘Turn the TV set off!’ ‘Do not eat that potted plant!’ And ‘I said put that cat down!’- but not say them back. This is understandable. A baby going round telling his parents to put the cat down and turn the TV set off is clearly being taught the wrong phrases and will become unpopular very soon. The sort of thing we should be teaching him, really, is ‘Thanks for the meal- it was great.’ ‘I really like it here at home, you know’ and ‘Put the cost of all these toys and things on the slate. OK? I’ll pay you back when I am 21.’

But even if he cannot talk, he can speak. He makes a lot of different noises. Some of them are recognizable vowels and consonants, such as ‘Mumumum’ ‘Gagagaga’ and ‘Dududud.’ Others are nor recognizable: they are largely spitting, clicking groaning, wheezing and fizzy noises that give him a lot of pleasure but are not going to be of any use to him when it comes to learning English.

So we fond parents disregard the noises but leap up and down when he goes: ’Babababa,’ and say, ‘Hey, he’s trying to talk!’ Actually, this is totally illogical. He doesn’t know that Babababa is going to be useful later on, and that the dribbling noises have no value in English. There are languages in which those noises would be useful. Xhosa is full of clicking noises. Afrikaners clear their throats a lot. Scots make noises that the English have lost and Poles make sounds we have never had.

All the noises he makes, in fact, are of possible use in some language. If he were an African baby, his parents might be leaning over him every time he clicked and fizzed, saying:’Ah, he’s saying things already!’ But if Babababa and Gagagaga represented sounds they didn’t have in their dialect, they would frown when he came out with them and wonder if he was ever going to learn to talk. There are sounds we all discourage our children from making, and if they need them later on, they are going to be in trouble.

We may think, for instance, that the Japanese have trouble with their ‘L’s and ‘R’s, but the British struggle with the French ‘R’. Quite apart from the fact that the British think it’s rather effeminate for a foreigner to talk French with a French accent, we find it very hard to wobble the saliva sufficiently in the throat to make the noise at all. We don’t think it’s a real noise, because it’s not like any of our noises.

And yet children can manage it very easily. My son does it all the time, especially after fruit juice. And yet the odds are that I will get him to unlearn it before very long.

You see, what I think is happening is that the child, happily gifted with all possible noises, is busy listening to his parents to identify which language he has been born into prior to getting rid of the noises that he does not need. At the moment, he is poised to learn an African language or that branch of Chinese where they seem to be sick every other sentence, or even Japanese, but in six months the moment will be gone. Now is the time, or never, to get him talking fluent Yiddish, while he has the sounds for it.

But we shall, rather predictably, continue talking English in the home and his range of noises is about to be drastically pruned, not, as experts, dramatically expanded. He may, through some freak, preserve a sound he doesn’t need, or a consonant from some other language. I often wonder if the ‘R’ favoured by Roy Jenkins or Frank Muir or Tony Benn’s whistling ‘S’ or that muffled ‘S’ peculiar to William Deedes, are not really authentic consonants from Ukrainian, or some cheap letter left over from a job-lot clearance of North African sound-shifts. This may also explain why some children have trouble with one letter for years and years, getting all the rest perfectly right. The one they get wrong is one they got rid of by mistake, thinking it would not be needed in English. Maybe somebody in Africa got it by mistake and hung on to it, liking it.

Well, as I say, it is just a theory, but if the Nobel people are reading this, they know how to get hold of me.

Welcome To Kington 1989


 
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