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Babies versus science

Do we really need words?

On a tennis court, or inside the house, Max just wants someone to play tennis with him.

At 14 months old, Max’s only clear English word was “dog”. Now approaching 15 months, he still can’t say “Mum”. Only when he is particularly desperate to get out of the cot, out of the house, or out of the highchair do his grunts for attention sometimes turn into a wail of

Mmmuuu … mmmuuu … mmmuuu … mmmuuu!

While the tone of this wailing has no doubt evolved to be too unpleasant to ignore, some part of me is still happy to believe those yells are my son’s affectionate attempt to call for his mum.

Max is now quite active and surprisingly coordinated, but is still effectively pre-verbal. So I am continually amazed at what he can achieve in the absence of any discernible language.

How, for example, was my pre-verbal toddler able to organise a game of tennis between himself and Don, a family friend, with nothing but enthusiastic grunting and pointing? It helped he was strong enough to physically drag the necessary tennis racquets over towards this visitor to our house. His pointing and squeals of either approval or disapproval were enough to make it clear to everyone in the room that Max wanted six-foot-something Don to bend down to pick up a tennis ball and take one of the racquets out of Max’s hand.

After a minute or so of further grunting and pointing Max managed to explain to Don that this game required him to first help arrange the angle of Max’s racquet, then throw the ball so it would successfully bounce back again.

His disapproval was quickly communicated after any “unsuccessful” hit - due to either a bad throw or incorrect racquet angle.

I found it interesting to read a recent study that showed there may even be meaning in the pauses and breaths between the sounds made by toddlers.

Max certainly seemed to be achieving a lot with his own grunts, but then it might have helped that Don may have been particularly skilled at deciphering grunts after playing more than 300 games of AFL football and captaining a premiership.

Note: No study to date has compared the grunting of toddlers to those of elite sports men and women, but I am sure there is a PhD in that for somebody.

Are two languages better than one, if one is better than none?

This display of my toddler’s ability to communicate without words came in the midst of a weekend of considerable adult discussion and debate about the possibility of sending our four-year-old Susie to a local bilingual primary school.

The school was a little bit further away and generally not as well resourced as the other primary schools in our area. This meant we found ourselves trying to equate the benefit of a second language against improved facilities for other things, like sport or music, and even the social benefits of having schoolmates in the surrounding streets.

While this was obviously an impossible equation to solve, it was interesting even trying to put a value on a second language. In this world of increasing globalisation, will our kids have a greater need for foreign languages? Or will the digital age drive further homogenisation of our planet towards universal use of English in business and academia?

A recent piece on The Conversation even argued that the most beneficial second language for our kids might be computerese (and while I disagree with this on principle, I have to admit that as someone who is minimally proficient in computer code and Spanish, I benefit more directly from computer programming than any Spanish conversation).

As Max struggles to learn his first language, it will be interesting to see how second languages are viewed when his generation enters university.

Max toddling his way through the old university buildings.

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