Monday, October 24, 2016

Listening to Language

Grandchild number nine made his entrance into the world a week ago and there is great rejoicing to receive him. I adore all things newborn, all things, but am awestruck afresh each time by their response to the human voice. Naturally, they know their mother’s voice, but when father comes into the room the baby turns toward it—in curiosity? in recognition? Either way, the sound of any soothing endearment to a squalling baby has a quieting effect on him. Thus begins our narration to him of life.

We murmur, coo, sing, and tell him in endless millions of words and sounds. And he begins to interpret. Surely at first it is comfort and assurance, but gradually their incredible mind begins to make meaning of words. It is a wondrous thing.

I think some of my grandchildren have heard their first book read from the first day of life. For that matter, their love of literature doubtless began in the womb as they heard their parents reading aloud to one another. Pointless? I don’t think so. Perhaps this untrained ear has not yet learned the meaning of language, but its sound is customary to him at birth, and long before comprehension of storyline is achieved, the littlest ones appreciate the music of their mother tongue.


In our eagerness to communicate, to teach, to see progress, I think we may underestimate the power of the sound of our language itself, its rhythm, roll, and ring. If a lullaby brings rest, a poem delight, even to the most inarticulate among us, why would the sound of language ever diminish in significance?

I pondered these things after another week of library conversations, consultations, podcast recordings and writing lectures for conferences. Parents desire their children to know, to understand, to learn, to grasp meaning. That is laudable. Sometimes, however, that desire is so focused on comprehension that we completely neglect and discount a child’s unabashed joy in the sound of the language he is hearing.

Does a child have to understand the historic roots to Hickory Dickory Dock to respond to its simple rhymey rattle? Does a child have to know the definition of every word issuing from the reader’s mouth to comprehend emotions of sorrow or fear or excitement in the unfolding of a story? He may not be able to pronounce the names of his first storybook characters, but he bounces and claps his hands in anticipation when we begin with “Once Upon a Time, there were three little bears…”

So is it reasonable for a parent to balk at reading Pilgrim’s Progress, or As You Like It, or The Faerie Queene, or Ezekiel in the Authorized Version because they might not “understand?” Is it not winsome and worthy enough for the child to revel in the sheer surprises and playfulness of this language? I have no doubt whatsoever that half (if not nine-tenths) of Shakespeare’s delight in writing was sheer bliss at the beauty of the language at his disposal, this fluid and flexible and endlessly intriguing intricacy of words?

Can we slip off our sophistication and become as a child, even as a new babe in arms, ignorant and inexperienced, and hear anew the world calling us to unimaginable dimensions through the sound of the magnificent language echoing through the ages for us to enjoy? Meaning may come—or maybe not—but our ears have been blessed, trained even, and our ideas of the power of words can explode to life. For words are living, and powerful, and imagination is set free in their mysteries.

For the joy of reading,

Liz

10 comments:

  1. A grand welcome to this new grandson and no doubt he brings magical wonder to all of you. I am so happy for you and the parents. This is a beautiful post.

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    1. Thank you, Bonnie, for sharing our joy. Some young people at my book club last night shared their own perspective on the sound of language, and it was encouraging to me that these eager readers from 17-35 years volunteered that meaning isn't all they're after in reading, but they revel in words and their multifaceted beauties.

      Liz

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  2. Thank you for sharing a part of our heart with us all. What a delight...little curled up toes and fingers and sweet smells of baby.
    My daughter, age 11 today was just giddy over Emily Dickinson today and how it sounds aloud...than i over heard my two youngest reciting "Fairy Bread," silly and high pitch voices.
    Blessings,
    Vanessa

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    1. Vanessa,

      Thank you for sharing how the sound of language is in your home. It is like having the smell and flavor of food to delight in as well as the nutritional benefits. We are meant to be people of music, both spoken and sung.

      Liz

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  3. Congratulations, Liz, on your new grandson!!! How wonderful! :) Again, I so enjoy your blog posts. I want "unabashed" joy to be part of our learning days ALWAYS. Thank you. Amy

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  4. Congratulations, Liz, on your new grandbaby!

    And thank you so much for reminding me that meaning isn't everything--that music and rhythm and alliteration and assonance and rhyme also delight us and make words wonderful.

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    1. Thank you, and good to hear from you. We all need this reminder on
      occasion, including myself.

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  5. I remember a friend telling me that when her boys were very young, they took a walk at night and were admiring the night sky. The three-year-old said, "look, Mommy, the stars are piercing the darkness." My friend asked him where he had heard that phrase and he said that it was in the book you were reading to us last night.

    We just don't know all that our children pick up as we read quality literature to them. Yes, the beauty of language is something to treasure and in which to take delight - like rolling a sweet piece of taffy around in our mouth.

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    1. Sandy,

      Thank you for the anecdote. Language is contagious, and very much like
      sticky taffy in the mouth.

      Liz

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  6. This delight in language is why one of my very favorite picture books to read aloud to little ones is "A House is a House for Me." And another one is "Jamberry." I just love the sound of those words.

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