Conversations, clarity, and comparisons

Geetha Durairajan

A few days ago, I got a call from a friend who told me that her daughter (a parent with a less than 3 year old child) wanted to discuss something with me. At a ‘mutually decided’ convenient time we talked over the telephone. This young mother was very anxious and worried for she had been told by the pre-nursery class teacher in the play school the little one goes to for an hour a day, that her son did not have clarity in his speech and that she should consider taking him for some counselling and if needed, some speech therapy!

For a whole minute, I think I was at a ‘mental’ loss for words! I did not show that of course, and must have mumbled something or the other, but for the life of me, could not understand how such a judgment had been made, what its basis was, etc.

With a little bit of prompting and some ‘careful’ questioning, I found out that the little boy had begun to talk only about three months earlier and that till then, a lot of the speech was baby language and what, in technical linguistic terms, is known as protolanguage. I wondered whether the problem was toilet training or whether he could not indicate his need; that was not an issue: this little one could. He was also able to speak short sentences in the mother tongue. In class, they had begun teaching them the names of colours and he could repeat those. But he had not yet mastered all the sounds in his mother tongue and had problems with the sound ‘r’ which is difficult anyway, for most children. Apparently, he identified the colour red as ‘led’. I reassured the mother that this was most common and asked her what her son’s reaction was if she uttered ‘led’ and pointed to the colour red. Pat came the reply, “Oh, aunty, he will then shake his head but still say ‘led’. Aunty, I am worried that my son will never be able to speak properly!”

I asked her to go and carry out a small experiment with her son and get back to me.

I asked her to point to the colour red somewhere and utter it as ‘led’, and then ask: “Is this ‘led’?” in Tamil and watch his reaction. Then, I asked her to utter it as ‘red’ and ask “Is this ‘red’?” in Tamil and also watch his reaction. In five minutes, she rang back, wonder in her voice. “Aunty, if I say ‘led’ for red, he shakes his head vehemently, frowns and struggles, but with difficulty still says ‘led’ but when I say ‘red’ he nods and says ‘led’.”

It took me a while to reassure her that this meant that all was well; her son could hear the sound ‘r’ very clearly; his tongue had not yet got the hang of uttering that sound but his ear could hear the difference. Give him time, I told her and he will be fine!

But this was not all! Apparently, in school, the children were asked to do some exercises (not in a notebook, but physical activities). But when asked to state that word, he took his own time and uttered the word very, very slowly, broken up into its three syllables. The teacher, who I found out, was a young not-so-experienced soul, therefore came to the ‘fantastic’ conclusion that this not yet three year-old boy ‘lacked clarity in speech’ and therefore needed counselling and therapy!

When I heard that the child had actually broken the word exercise, which is actually a very difficult word for a young child, into three bits I knew that there was nothing wrong with this boy, for he had actually broken that word correctly into its three syllables, ex-er-cise. This meant that the child did perceive patterns and though he could not speak English clearly yet, had heard enough of it to make sense of its syllable structure. What the teacher saw as a problem I saw as remarkable pattern formation!

How do we compare one child with another and how do we decide when language acquisition will and must happen? We know that it is like a miracle, but walking and talking are two milestones in a child’s life that cannot be controlled or rather decided upon by any parent! They will happen only when they will. Also, the two will never happen together. And when a child walks first and begins talking later, all these ‘problems’ which are non-problems, actually, occur! We cannot, and should not as parents, compare our child with another and decide that there is a ‘problem’ with our little one!

Unfortunately, in this century, that is what is happening. The other day I saw an advertisement for a series of talks on effective parenting for children between, and this is what was interesting, “zero and fifteen years”. And what did it promise: that if you wanted your child to get into the IITs or the IIMs or become an IAS officer, the little one must be ‘exceptionally intelligent’ and for this, you can help by making your child into a genius by ensuring that the little one can ‘read at 12 months, do math at 18 months, play chess at 48 months’, and as though the child has nothing better to do, ‘tell the capital, language, currency and religion of all countries at 60 months’!

According to this advertisement, which claimed the sun and the moon as possible, for every child, effective parenting meant ensuring that the child could do all that I have listed above and more! By implication it meant that if all this did not happen, in the requisite number of months, then, either the child is not developing according to age appropriate levels, and must be counselled and coached, or the parent is a ‘bad’ caregiver! My heart went out to the young parents who would sign up for these ‘talks’ and sessions and go berserk with worry because their little ones did not do all that had been promised! Would they push themselves or their kids, I wondered. I visualized this set of parents, each one toting their little ones, comparing and contrasting the ‘led’ and the ‘geen’ with the ‘ello’ and the ‘thee’ with the ‘seben’ and going bonkers!

kid-and-water
Illustration: Vikrant Barmate

We seem to have forgotten that protolanguage is what all children begin with when they learn to speak. This is a pre-language acquisition stage and does not have any grammar. There are only two systems, words, and meaning; so, a single word or sound like ‘ee’ can mean, take me there, I want that, and so on. As we all know, children do not begin to utter all the sounds of the language they learn; some sounds come later, and so, in protolanguage they will make approximations to these sounds; so for example a child who cannot make the ‘st’ sound, will say ‘poth for the word ‘post’ but will understand the word ‘post’ if spoken by someone else. The most important feature of protolanguage is that all children will in one sense, create their own language for communication; they will create new words for the things they need; for example, one common word for which different children create new words is for ‘water.’ I have heard ‘dan-dan’ ‘la-la’ ‘thiitha’, ‘bu da da’and so on for the same term. This using of words that are not a part of any known language has to be seen as creativity in a child and valued and cherished. A little child that says ‘thee’ for three, or ‘geen’ is anyway not going to continue with that lovely ‘baby language’ for a long time! As parents and caregivers, let us value and enjoy such languaging for that is what it is!

The author is Professor, Department of Testing and Evaluation, EFL University, Hyderabad. She can be reached at gdurairajan@gmail.com.