Language is a tricky thing for children. There are just so many words and sounds that they have to figure out and determine the meaning of. And then just when they think they have a grasp over what a particular collection of sounds means they learn that the very same collection of sounds can mean a completely different thing altogether, depending on the context of the sounds surrounding it and the look on the face of the person that happens to be making the sound.
Words. Children are born into a maze of words. And it is no wonder that they so often get lost and bump into the walls and make fools of themselves.
Take for instance, my wonderful daughters. These sweet little creatures love to make sounds, and they love to explore new horizons of vocabulary, asking questions about the words they are hearing around them and randomly making up sounds and noises in the hopes that they might possibly mean something.
“What does… um, Bumfelter mean, Daddy?”
“Nothing. I hope. I hope that never becomes a real word.”
“How about… Sssstramblamadodo?”
Sigh. This is a common conversation.
The other day the two girls piled into the back of my car and started chanting for music before I had even backed out of the driveway. Give me words! Give me sounds! Give me language to explore, they seemed to be saying. So, I excitedly began digging through my music, and I was about to swap out a disc in the car stereo when I remembered something rather important. I had been listening to an audiobook. If I ejected it now, I would essentially be losing my place in the book forever. It would take me 15 minutes to find where I had left off. So, I apologized to my little angels and told that that, before we could listen to music, I had to finish listening to the last track of my audiobook. They agreed sweetly and endured 2 or 3 minutes of Patrick O’brian’s Treason’s Harbor with Lucky Jack Aubrey of the British Navy sailing his mighty ocean exploring vessel in search of glory on the high seas. I lost myself in the moment, with the salty sea air flying through my hair as I stood on the deck and hoisted my sails to the wind, and a great flood of nautical jargon swept fantastically across the deck. At the turn of the track break, I ejected the disc and the car was again engulfed in silence.
“Uhh…” Clara said from the back seat. “Dad? What was that?”
“That was my book Sweetie.” I glanced into the mirror and smiled. “Do you like it?”
She made a face. “Sortof Dad, but…” She shared a look with her sister, then they both turn back at me with their noses curled into tiny knots. “Dad. Why are you listening to a book about poop?”
“Clara! What in the world are you talking about?!”
She leaned forward into her seat belt and defended herself. “No! Your book said it. Didn’t it Lydia? The man talked about poop! I heard him. It said the man on the boat was standing on poop!”
I suddenly realized the confusion. “Oh.. Oh, I’m sorry,” I struggled for the proper words. “Okay. So, this book uses a lot of old words for big wooden sailing ships. And one of the areas on the big wooden sailing ship is called a… well it’s called a ‘poop deck’. It’s like a deck that the captain can walk out on. It has nothing to do with… well, you know… poopie.” I made a pained face and tried to hide it by looking out the side window.
If the girls found anything humorous about this, they politely kept it to themselves. They nodded at each other in understanding, happy to have found a new use for an old combination of sounds.
Nothing more was said on the subject. However… Last night I took the two of them on another outing. They piled into the back of the car and began chanting for music again, as has become our ritual.
“Just let me finish this chapter of my audiobook quick,” I told them once again.
“Okay Dad,” Clara said. And then she surprised me by saying, “I really like the book we listened to last time. I like thinking about sailing ships and being out on the ocean. It’s fun to pretend about.”
“It is,” I told her happily.
Then she said, “I asked mom today if I could make a poop in the backyard.”
I sat frozen in the silent car, my hand hovering near the stereo, in shock.
She continued, almost to herself, “I think it would be really neat, but, well… I don’t think mom understood what I was talking about.”
And then her mind wandered off again, staring out the window, as she fumbled in her mind through the endless and confusing maze of language. The blind. Struggling in the darkness with words like chests locked tightly with chains. Trying to understand this strange world of adult language. Trying to maneuver through it’s reefs and shallow waters, and then just as they feel clear of the rocky shore and on their way to peaceful sailing, they tell someone they want to make a poop in the backyard and have to start all over again.