Rebekah’s Language Breakthrough

Our great granddaughter, Rebekah is three, and very bright for her age, as is the case with all great grandchildren – except in this case it is for real.

Like all three-year-olds, she is still adding to her mastery of the English language and she is doing it very well.

She works from the known to the unknown. That’s how learning takes place for all of us. In other words, what she has already mastered in the use of language she tries to apply in new situations.

Here’s a case in point. Recently she was with her grandmother in a summer camp dining hall where she was having the first experience of carrying her own tray.

Already at three years of age she had apparently discovered that when you want to reverse a situation you may use the prefix “un.” For example when you get up in the morning you dress, but when you go to bed at night you un-dress. Doors that are locked may be un-locked and shoes that are tied must be un-tied.

Rebekah is very daring in applying this “rule.” While carrying her own tray across the dining hall she suddenly signaled for her grandmother’s help. She said, “I want you to hold my tray while I un-itch my nose.” A few moments later she needed help again while she un-itched her arm.

It wasn’t right but it was beautiful. It deserved three cheers. Three short years ago she could communicate only by crying. Now she is on her way to making the subtlest thoughts clear by delivering them in words with prefixes and suffixes and tenses and voices.

She has no idea what words like prefix or suffix mean. Words like grammar and language are unknown to her. Perhaps at some time in the future a gifted teacher will take her into these territories.

For now, Rebekah’s growing mastery appears to be innate, even though shaped to some extent by the way language is used around her. But, essentially she is exercising the beautiful gift of humanness.

Will the day come when she will corrupt this gift by the overuse or misuse of words such as “like?” “Like” will she, “like” take up, “like” the patterns of speech that she hears all around her?

It remains to be seen. But recently as a great grandfather I thought about what I would do if I were a father of little ones again and I saw that very corruption of speech developing in a child. I wouldn’t scold or chide.

I would get a small jar and put five dollars worth of quarters into it. Then I would explain to the child that this money is theirs, but every time they are caught putting the word “like” in a sentence where it doesn’t belong, I would ask them to surrender a quarter. I might even “accidentally” let them catch me slipping myself and contribute some money to the jar just to make the game fun.

My point would be simple. Why let a child learn something with regard to this marvelous gift of speech only later to have to un-learn it?

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