Story of language, 3: Trouble

by Wolf Pascoe on December 13, 2010

Part 3 in a five part series.

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Read: Part 1. Part 2. Part 4. Part 5.

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During his first few months of speech therapy, Nick’s vocabulary improved at an astonishing rate. Words of two, three and four syllables rolled off his tongue. (His pronunciation was another matter. But his teacher, a young woman named Judy, assured us it would improve with time.)

I had never thought about the complexity of speech. Take the sound we associate with the letter L, for example. It requires the tongue to assume a particular shape and to touch the roof of the mouth. But where does the L sound occur in a word? At the beginning? In the middle? At the end? Is it followed or preceded by another sound? Is that other sound a consonant or a vowel? Which one?

By the time you answered these questions there were hundreds of possibilities, and each one required the speaker to shape the tongue differently, and to move it into a slightly different position. And there were other muscles, such as those controlling cheeks and lips, that had to move in concert.

And L was only one sound. 

It was a wonder to me that anyone ever learned to talk. Most kids learn to do it unconscious of the thousands of choices they are making in an instant. Nick had to think about it every time, every sound, every word. And he was still only producing single words. He had yet to string those words into sentences.

I began to worry about grammar. Would he have to go through the same sort of conscious learning process to express his thoughts in sentences? Would he start with two-word sentences, then move on to three, four, and longer? How many years would it take?

Then one day, about six months after he’d begun therapy, Nick suddenly said, “Dada, I want a glass of water.”

Seven words, just like that. Magic.

He rapidly began to replace single words, and strings of single words, with grammatical sentences. The transition was complete in two weeks. It was as if the sentences were already there in his brain, and had been waiting to come out. It was as miraculous as if he’d suddenly started speaking in French.

I still had my problems with the speech center. I felt they were too controlling, that their methods could allow more breathing room. But Nick was speaking in sentences. He was making himself heard at school. He was going to have a normal childhood.

And then the stuttering began.

. . .

to be continued . . .

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Any experiences with children learning to talk? I’d love you to add your comment below. I (nearly) always write a response here.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sirena December 14, 2010 at 6:10 pm

WOW. What a saga! How can you leave us hanging like that? I know there will be a happy outcome and I can’t wait for Part 4. I have no experience in this area myself, but it sounds trying. I’ve heard that you have to learn a new language before age 12 otherwise you will always have an accent and you’ll never get the grammar right. So it’s not too late for Spanish, Italian, and French….

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Wolf Pascoe December 15, 2010 at 11:29 pm

Parts 4 and 5 will conclude this i-magnum opus. We’re holding off on the Spanish for now.

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