Years ago, when our firstborn son was two years old, he had the obnoxious habit of repeating himself over and over. At first I continued to answer him patiently, the same answer ten times in a row. Next I resorted to ignoring him, but the questioning went on. Finally, in frustration, I instructed him to not keep asking the same question after he had received the answer. Then one day, he asked me a question that did not need an answer, and then asked it again in a different way.
“I see no stars up there, Mom? Mom, do I see no stars up there?”
A light went on in my brain. I began to recall my own experiences with language learning in Papua New Guinea. Could my two-year-old possibly be cognizant enough to be learning his first language in such a structured manner? So, for the first time, instead of answering his question, “I don't know whether you see any stars or not, David,” I repeated his phrase back to him with the proper grammar. “I don't see any stars up there, Mom.”
He looked at me with absolute delight and jumped up and down yelling, “I don't see any stars up there, Mom!”
The next few days were an intense learning session. David's ability to talk grew by leaps and bounds. He questioned me continually; and now, instead of answering what had appeared to be dumb questions, I would carefully articulate the grammar and phonetics of a whole exchange for him. He repeated me until he could say it all properly without coaching.
David: “You got to wash a dishes, Mom?”
Mom: “Do you need to wash the dishes, Mom?”
David: “Do you need to wash the dishes, Mom?”
Mom: “Yes, I need to wash the dishes. Would you like to help me?”
David: “Like to help me?”
Mom: “I want to help you, Mom.”
David: “I want to help you, Mom.”
His affection for me became hilariously dear. We were close before, but now we had become best buddies in just a few hours. I was suddenly the only person in the world who could tell him exactly what he wanted to know.
My curiosity was aroused; did all toddlers face this problem? I began to listen in Walmart and the bank when I went to town. What I heard were different levels of understanding. Some children seemed to be under the impression that there was not necessarily a correct way to speak. Perhaps because the adults in their lives simply repeated their baby talk back to them because they thought it was cute. Other children had obviously discovered the truth and were in various stages of learning with their oblivious teachers. I can sympathize with these kids in their efforts to learn a language from a clueless adult.
I spent two years among the Kumboi people of Papua New Guinea. Most of that time was spent on linguistics and translation. I squatted for hours in the smoke-filled cookhouse in the center of our village, practicing the words I learned and picking up new ones. The villagers loved to hear me talk. It amused them to hear a grown person falter and slur words just like their toddlers. I encountered the same problem David did when my Kumboi friends failed to correct the words I said. Their first response was to say them the same poor way I had because it was funny.
Among my friends was a young married girl from one of the most remote and uncivilized villages in the region. She was often teased for forgetting to wear a shirt or comb the debris out of her hair in the morning. Natalin did not speak the trade language at all when I first came and was confined to the local tribal language alone.
Natalin was my favorite language helper. She was a natural teacher. When I said a word wrong, Natalin did not think it was funny; she must have understood the frustration of not being able to communicate. Her response to me was always swift and loud. With perfect enunciation and tones, Natalin would repeat the desired word or phrase for me the way it should be said. Even today, seven years later, I can hear her voice ringing in my head. She would bob her head at me, directing me to keep repeating her until I said the phrase to her satisfaction. Next, this unlearned, but brilliant, teacher would pick up an object on the dirt floor and begin an instructive conversation in which I would have to use my new phrase correctly.
Natalin made me excited about learning a language. Her focus was never on my inabilities, but rather on the task at hand.
That week, watching David learn to speak was enlightening for me. I began to look at little children with different eyes—or I should say, I began to hear them with different ears! Nine years later, I can say that observing my own children has been a vital part of “educating” them.
As a student and teacher, my “major” in this school of life is observing my children. Without seeing and hearing them, I cannot answer their questions. My instruction, if apropos of nothing, will fall on deaf ears because it is uncalled for, literally. I am a student, ever learning the needs of my students, ever finding the answers they need, and ever questioning my own truths.