I remember when my cousin, Stephanie Rausch, was born, and Dan, her older brother, was excitedly telling me about her cognitive development. He was fascinated with his youngest sister and was gaining great insights into her brain. To her, “out of sight” meant “out of existence”. If you were to leave the room, it was as if you disappeared; if you were to duck behind the couch, her little brain couldn’t imagine that you simply weren’t visible. Instead, you were gone entirely.
I didn’t appreciate it then, but that’s fascinating to consider. To draw that line from infant thought to adult thought is a quantum leap. We “know” the person behind the couch is still there, but we have remarkably little evidence to that fact. Yet, as adults, it makes complete sense. I saw him duck behind the couch. Why wouldn’t he be there? Somewhere in our development, this logic goes from incomprehensible to self-evident.
Now, these years later, I’m in close proximity with a growing, thinking child, and I find myself excitedly observing him with all the enthusiasm Dan had for his sister. Of particular interest to me, and the subject of this post, has been Ian’s development in language.
Buckle up; this will probably be boring and wildly speculative.
It’s clear to me that, from the earliest days of life, an infant has some language. Ian was born crying, the exclamation mark of language. You can’t say, I think, that a child is born devoid of language, but all they seem to know is a couple of catch-all phrases they got from a cheap travel dictionary. Perhaps there are nuances or subtleties in those cries, but I think the brain’s exchange goes like this:
- Brain: Ian, you are hungry.
- Ian: Okay…
- Brain: If you don’t get food, you will die.
- Ian: Wow, that sounds really serious. What should I do?
- Brain: Notify the breasted one.
- (Ian begins to scream)
This type of language is binary. He was either crying (meaning something’s wrong), or he wasn’t (meaning not something’s wrong). Also, there didn’t seem to be a difference in crying. Crying meant “Something’s wrong,” but without information as to what was wrong. I knew he’d get there. It’s the first question parents ask a fussy or crying toddler: “What’s wrong?” To get to that point, he’s have to develop a little more.
I speculate that, as he grew, and grew to think of the world in a different way, so his language adapted to reflect that change. He came to realize that his feelings were unique: hunger, fear, tiredness, happiness. His language for those feelings was becoming unique, too. In fact, he began to experiment with something new altogether: dialogue.
It’s not clear to me when it happened, but there must have been a point where his brain realized that he was making sounds. Whether it was a sudden “Eureka!” moment or a gradual dawning, I’m not sure, but at some point he heard himself, recognized what he heard as a distinct sound, and further realized that he was not only making that sound but in control of it. This becomes the ever-so-cute “baby babble”.
There must have been, in this new set of sounds, more meaning than he had ever before conveyed. There were sudden, huge doors open to him. He had stumbled upon the foundation of every single spoken modern language in existence, ever: syllabic sound. This is a huge moment, because, in English, it doesn’t take much to go from syllables to words. “Mah” and “me” together become “Mommy”, the result of two syllables standing next to each other to produce a word.
At this point, I don’t know that he doesn’t have words. He may very well be assigning names to objects that he sees and concocting grammatical rules for those names to follow. There are two very fascinating phenomena that come out of this new baby babble: stories and jokes. Ian’s monologues usually occur when we’ve set him on the changing table. With concentrated effort, Ian will launch into a string of syllables and sounds. While talking, he makes eye contact (although, intermittently). After a “sentence”, he pauses, during which we might respond back to him, establishing dialogue. He will react to our sounds, perhaps with just a smile, and launch into another sentence. Finally, he might just start kicking his legs in a frenetic kind of immobile dancing. In essence, he’s told a nonsense baby story.
His jokes are a rarer occasion, and I’ve only seen him do it a couple of times. Essentially, he’ll launch into a shorter version of “story”, but after he stops, he erupts in laughter. What makes this interesting is that he doesn’t appear to be reacting to us. Generally, I’m still wearing my “listening raptly” face when he breaks into laughter. It seems to be a reaction to his own story (or his own thought). As to the quality of his jokes, I can’t yet speculate.
Despite these huge leaps in language, he still has yet to place one minor piece of the language puzzle: the tongue. Since his earliest, Ian has seemed wholly unsure what the purpose of his tongue is. It’s almost always getting in his way, especially while trying to enjoy a pacifier. His use of tongue in pacification might be humorous, but his use of it in language is downright horrific.
When he first began baby babble, his tongue played the same role such as our own might; it was a nuanced muscle, offering a new range of sounds. Without a tongue, the word, “tongue”, would be unpronounceable (a fact gangster movie writers have used to great effect).
As Ian experimented with his communication, he began to question the role his tongue was playing. Rather than relegating it to a syllable here or there, he was trying all sorts of contortions. As he spoke, you could witness his tongue performing acrobatics inside his mouth. Despite this, it didn’t affect his speech much; his tongue didn’t hit its “hot spots” often enough to impede discussion, and his tongue never left his mouth.
That brings us to this weekend. I noticed (yet another) variation in his use of spoken language. It’s a variant which I’ve designated “Ian’s New Language” or “The Spitting Language”. Don’t worry; we’ve got video. His tongue, it would seem, found it suitable to exit the cave of mastication and to participate in language in a much more intrusive role. This means that every syllable begins, ends, or contains a raspberry. Yes, really.
The Spitting Language is what you would sound like if you wanted to ridicule someone by “speaking in their voice”. For instance, if I were to say, “I’m Bartholomew, and I’m a gigantic imbecile,” but wanted to get across that I thought Bartholomew was gigantically imbecile, I might make flatulence sounds with my tongue as I spoke those words. That is exactly what my son is doing now. If you saw the short-lived “Michael and Michael Have Issues”, then imagine MIB performing butterfly farts but trying to speak at the same time. This is my progeny.
What I have yet to figure out is the connection between baby babble and Ian’s New Language. If he was making sounds before, sounds that had some fashion of presumable meaning, is he still making those same sounds but merely with his tongue in the way? Or is this an entirely new cast of sounds with entirely new sets of meaning? Has he scrapped his old language for a new one, or is this simply an accent of the original? Does either version actually have meaning, or does he assign arbitrary meaning to the sounds as his mouth produces them?
Tragically, I’ll probably never know the answers to those questions. All I can do is study Ian as he speaks and try my best to deduce what he knows and what he thinks. This brings me to your reward for reading to the bottom. It’s a video of Ian demonstrating his new language. Enjoy.