Recent visits to see our grandchildren, both east and west, impressed on me again that most miraculous and mysterious of matters: children acquiring language. How in the world do they process vocabulary and grammar and everything else in those little brains of theirs? It’s a delight to watch and participate in, to read aloud to them and hear the nursery rhymes and songs learned so effortlessly, it seems.
The adult reader realizes that the little Miss being read to can’t possibly know all those words yet. Gown, for example, in a story about a girl who delivers a dress through a snow storm. But set into the story, which charms her for any number of reasons, and heard numerous times, gown, which is another word for dress will probably stick. Does she need a second word for dress? Well, yes of course she does. The two are slightly different, and she will need a lot of words for everything. Differences, nuance, precision, sounds of various kinds enrich our lives.
In the other family, where some of the children are older, we attended a performance of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” in which the 12-year-old and 9-year-old played Antonio and Gonzalo respectively. The entire troupe consisted of youth, ages 9 to 16. It was a condensed version, to be sure, running about 50 minutes, and simple and improvised as far as set and costumes were concerned, but it was the Bard’s words they memorized and performed, and again, I marvelled. The kids loved being part of this group. The actor-instructor assumed they would “get” Shakespeare, and they did. Though we think our own grandchildren the most fabulous ever, I must hasten to add that they’re ordinary kids, not geniuses who go around talking King James English on a daily basis. But thrown into it, they swim.
And then there’s the way children quite intuitively find metaphor to speak of what they see. The other grandparent and I had taken two of the kids to the bird sanctuary, and on our drive home, we passed a field packed thickly with snow geese. For some reason, the birds lifted and began to swarm and swirl. The boy insisted we stop for a picture. While the camera was doing its work, we exclaimed and commented to one another how the birds shone when the sun caught them at certain angles. Then the boy said, “It’s like God opened the sky and dropped down glitter.” Yes. It looked exactly like that.
So, my small soapbox for the week: 1. Marvel at children’s acquisition of language. 2. Meet them where they are, with additional words to stretch them. 3. And marvel some more. (And hopefully every child will have at least one book under the tree.)