In her eighth month, Ella began to acquire language. Late one afternoon, we sat together on her floor, a dozen picture blocks scattered before us. She turned one block after another in her little hands, examining first a tiger, than an egg or a hat or a zebra. When she looked at them so intently, I asked her, “Where is the butterfly?” She looked at me, then pointed to the block in front of her, which did, in fact, picture a butterfly. I moved the block and asked again. And then once more. Each time she sought the right block.
I quickly discovered she knew the names of many things: puppy, bird, block, book, dada (the person, not the art movement), ball, duck, baby. One at a time, I would ask her for an object, and she would turn her gaze upon it, fix her eyes steadily and smile. Sometimes, she would point. At night, she sat with her doll in the bath, her tiny fingers exploring the even tinier nubs of her baby’s eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. She was consumed by these particulars, by understanding the landscape of the face, the location of eye and ear, and I, in turn, was consumed by her. A thrill possessed me. The day before she had seemed caged in unknowing. Now she understood.
As startling as those first verbal recognitions were, Ella’s acquisitions of language had, in fact, begun many months earlier. At the tail end of one long day when she was four or five months old, Ella sat in my lap facing me. Having exhausted our repertoire of books, mobiles, music, and the play gym, I was back to making sounds. Vowel sounds and consonant sounds and animal sounds — I ran through the music of language in the most primitive way. Yet that day, to my great surprise, she answered me. I crooned, she sighed. I hummed, she hissed. I crowed, she sputtered. It wasn’t exactly language, but it was a basic social understanding. One speaks when one is spoken to. My turn, your turn. Call and response. However I chose to understand it, I knew that Ella had, inexplicably, figured something out. And the moment startled me, for in those exchanges, she had asserted a voice, one of the primal markers of identity, individuality, and independence. Her voice calling out to me was haunting; it was like seeing the ghost fly from the machine, revealing the most secret workings of her mind — and, perhaps, her soul. It seemed to me a rare moment of witness, in which she suddenly understood something new about the world, and I was privileged with a glimpse of this emerging self.
How and when these transformations had occurred remained as profound as the mystery of her life. But just as suddenly as her zygote had emerged, seemingly, from nothingness, understanding flooded her mind. It was the most profound change to have overtaken her, and with it she assumed a new attitude toward the world. Always alert, she seemed now almost to have a sense of her self in the world. She seemed to sit straighter and to focus more intently. Things acquired names. She could touch her polar bear with purpose. She could give him to us or take him away. And knowing him newly, knowing his identity, was a new kind of knowledge. It was power, and it offered her a kind of control.
A few evenings later as I nursed her to sleep, I gazed at her, remembering how she had once fit entirely in the small circle of my arms. Her pleasure there had been complete. Already, I could see that deep, unconscious pleasure had left her. She no longer settled herself into that surrendered position, but nursed quietly and briefly. Now, her larger pleasure was beyond me, in the world and its newness, and in her own growing ability to communicate.
In the first year, there are many things a child will learn: to grab, shake her head, bat her hand at an object that tantalizes her (a hanging toy, perhaps), or a plush block on the ground. She will learn to roll, then to sit, then to crawl. She will pull herself to stand; she will cruise along the furniture; finally, she will walk. She will learn to suck, chew, hold a spoon, and feed herself. She will learn to make sense of what she sees, hears, and touches. She will come to understand what is hot, what is dirty; how to climb up the stairs, how to climb down; how to push or pull; how to pick up a Cheerio, expertly, between two tiny fingers; how to shake a rattle and drink from a cup. With my help, she would learn to sleep alone, in her crib, to comfort and soothe herself to sleep — without breast, without bottle — to wake at a relatively appropriate hour of the morning. The process seems endless. Often, it seems effortless.
I tried to remember to turn on music, set her mobile in motion, and allow uninterrupted time on her play mat, as a butterfly, a caterpillar and a sun dangled above her. I took her out of the apartment, so she would understand that the world was wider than my arms. I tried to name everything for her: diaper, washcloth, onesie, soap, crib, blanket, book. I read to her, over and over, letting her eyes behold the pages, though at first they were merely masses of color and unresolved shapes. In many ways, my love for her was actually a kind of discipline; my most fundamental job was to teach her things about the world. Yet day after day, I often found that it was she who exerted the more strenuous discipline; she who taught me daily how to teach her, who taught me about myself, my limits, and the farthest reaches of love and endurance. In one of those strange, illogical reversals that I came to accept as the terra firma of motherhood, I became her disciple.
Still, Ella’s learning baffled me. How did she acquire knowledge of her capabilities and her world? Was she acquiring knowledge itself? Or ways of knowing? Instinct told me that it had to be both, for as soon as she came to know things, she also knew how to solve problems. She learned “chair” and that many types of them existed. She learned to climb, and then used this skill to acquire objects out of reach. Like all children, she would drop something — from her crib, her high chair — and wait for us to retrieve it for her. Thus, she learned about categories, cause and effect, consequence. In fact, Alison Gopnik, Andrew N. Meltzoff, and Patricia K. Kuhl have argued convincingly in The Scientist in the Crib that this model of learning accurately reflects a baby’s way of being in the world. Babies, they propose, are like little scientists, whose “theories” about the world are tested and revised by experience. We learn not by having material inscribed on the “blank slate” of our brain but by having our innate and acquired knowledge challenged and reinforced by experience. One of our most profound evolutionary adaptations is that we are programmed to learn, and what Ella revealed to me is that our learning is not simply passive and receptive, but active and reciprocal. That she could adapt my teachings to her own purposes simply reflected how learning is one of our most basic ways of being in the world.
In our earliest years, this learning happens at an astounding rate, and this startlingly rapid development is evident on the most foundational and physiological level. Though our brains possess at birth all of the neurons we will ever have in our lives, the synapses between these — the electrical connections or wiring that make thought and perception possible –are largely made after birth. This process, known as “synaptogenesis,” is one of furious growth, in which dendrites and axons sprout and connect — at the rate of nearly 2 million per second until age two. (1) Such phenomenal growth comprises an “exuberant” period, during which the brain produces many more connections than it will eventually need. At age three, a child’s brain contains twice as many synapses as an adult. Then, through experience, a kind of pruning occurs, so that inactive synapses are eliminated and active ones are strengthened. And, like the exuberant growth, pruning takes place on similarly epic scale: nearly twenty billion synapses per day may be pruned between early childhood and adolescence. This process allows each child’s brain to respond maximally to her own particular environment, to be highly attuned to (and tuned by) her own unique, lived experience. It is this complicated combination of biology and experience, nature and nurture, that allows us to be flexible and creative learners, that enables us to adapt, to grow, to change. (2) And if this exuberant period is not exactly visible to the baby’s watchful parent, I certainly found it an apt metaphor for that thrilling assumption of knowledge to which I found myself witness.
Not long after I first understood that she understood, Ella sat on her floor clutching her little blue C block, small enough to fit in the palm of her hand. Turning it over and over, she lighted on the picture of a cow, and began humming: “Mmmmmmm.” I looked up from my book.
“Ella, what does the cow say?”
“That’s right,” I said. “Mooo.”
“MMM-mmmmmm,” she hummed, her voice rising and falling. Knowing her own slight knowledge, she smiled and waved the block at me.
The moment frightened me a little because her learning was so quick and the moment of recognition so complete. I don’t know exactly why this should have frightened me, except that knowledge itself can be so startling. One day there is no language, no comprehension. And then something happens, and there it is, a word flying out of the mouth, like a butterfly broken from its chrysalis, a newly minted gift of a thing.
Over the next days she spoke “ra ra ra” for ruff, ruff, ruff. And “teh, teh, teh” as she pointed to her toes. I feared that I was not keeping up with her. Soon she would point, or wave, to every object in her range of vision, “ahhh-ahhh-ahhh,” she exclaimed, looking quizzically to me. “Table,” I said. “Candle.” “Plant.” “No, no,” I said and she shook her head in response. “Water…Bath…Fish…Diaper… Brown bear.” Language tumbled through her at an alarming rate. By her first birthday, she would be able to pick out each of her books from her shelf, scanning their spines like a little librarian until, AHA! — she recognized the title we had asked for.
Then, just two days after Easter, we visited the zoo with my parents. The Children’s Zoo was awash with children and small animals: donkeys, ducks, sheep, goats, alpacas, hens, roosters. Most of these roamed free. We stood in front of a sheep. Ella watched intently as I petted its wooly coat. This was not her first time at the zoo.
“Do you want to pet the sheep?” my mother asked.
For a moment, Ella watched me and then, to our astonishment, she shook her head. Back and forth it wagged deliberately. No.
My mother and I exchanged a look.
“Oh,” I said.
Under her breath my mother exclaimed, “Hmm.”
“Ask her again,” I said.
“Would you like to pet the sheep, Ella?”
Firmly, my daughter shook her head.
I laughed, not quite believing what I had seen. Thoughts clogged my brain. She had understood not only what was said, but that a question had been asked of her, and that it demanded a response. There were several levels of cognition at work, all of which seemed impossible to me.
It was not long before she could string together a sequence of ideas. Late one afternoon, she crawled up to our front door, pulled herself to stand and began to bang on it with the palm of her hand, banging and waving, banging and waving.
“Bye-bye,” I said.
As if to acknowledge my correctness, she banged and waved with increased fervor.
“Bye-bye,” I repeated. “Who went bye-bye?”
At this she stopped, turned around and pointed to our wedding picture, which hung high on the wall behind her. “Dada,” she said, and then she turned to me, a questioning look on her face.
“That’s right,” I exclaimed, “Dada went bye-by to work. But he’ll be home later.”
“Bah-bah,” she waved.
I understood that I would forever be in danger of underestimating her, that she would always be one step ahead of me. Now that she could think, her being was severed from my own, independent, and just a little bit more unknown.
Watching Ella, it seemed impossible not to believe that the brain is wired for language. How else to make sense of that sudden flash of understanding? In fact, there is a theory, widely acknowledged, of “Universal Grammar.” Pioneered by Noam Chomsky, it posits that because all language shares a fundamental, underlying structure, the human brain, somehow, must be wired for language. All languages are made up of similar parts of speech (noun, verb, object, adverb, etc); all languages rely on a system of grammar (the particular order and construction of sentences). The universality of this system and structure suggest that language is unique to and inherent in the human mind. (3) This is not to say that we know the rules of any particular language at birth, but rather that we are programmed to learn the rules as we confront them in our environment. How else to explain the ability of very young children to construct new sentences, to make plural forms of nouns or past tenses of verbs which they have never before heard? Certainly, children learn language by modeling adults, but they are also programmed to learn it; thus, their earliest efforts to communicate (the need for food, the desire to be held) are bounded and controlled by this innate propensity for deciphering and learning the human language which surrounds them.
But anyone who has listened long to baby’s jargon will understand intuitively this deep structure of language. For as soon as babies begin to notice the language around them, they begin to imitate. Their babble is nonsensical as “Jabberwock,” but equally suggestive of meaning. It rises and falls in pitch and tone, contains pauses and halts, as if punctuated by commas, semi-colons, periods, even question marks. All babies understand, eventually, that language is expressive, that phonemes strung together communicate desire, need, pleasure, distress, and their babble erupts as if it does, indeed, have meaning. In fact, Ella’s nonsensical speech was so often uttered with such deep insistence, it was impossible to think that it did not have meaning to her. Many days, I nearly forgot she couldn’t talk. Not only did I find it quite easy to understand her, but it was easy to believe that she believed she made sense. Something deep in our make-up, something physical and irreducible, seemed to course through her, emphatically sentencing her to meaning.
Of all the things a child must learn, the most momentous is language. One day, that undifferentiated stream of sound, of babble and bark and hum that flows from our mouth becomes intelligible. An insistent syllable or two frees itself from the crowd, its contours resolve, and a word becomes recognizable, a pattern that can be picked out of noisy chaos, and that clarion sound becomes attached to meaning, to pedestrian sense. It is the most complicated and specialized knowledge of all. First, she must hear, then recognize, then finally understand, that the sound she hears, that symbol, now round with meaning, offers her a new, illimitable map of her world. From that first Eureka! To the more nuanced understanding of verbs, commands, questions: Go! Come! Put in your block! Take out your bunny! is not so great a leap as that very first flight out of pre-linguistic darkness. It is a flight as great, if not as dangerous, as Satan’s journey out of hell. It certainly brings her to knowledge most divine.
I remember the moment clearly, perhaps more clearly than any other in her first year. I had been working all day, sitting at the computer drafting and redrafting a new syllabus. I had hardly spoken to Ella, much less held or played with her. She seemed content, playing with her father on the floor behind me. But suddenly, she broke away from him and crawled over to me, plodding on all fours, her head down and wagging back and forth like a small animal. She stopped right below me. Then, with some effort, she balanced on her knees and pulled herself up on my chair. At full attention below me, she looked in my face and barked, “MA!”
I looked down at her with equal parts shock and love. It was not her first word, but it was her first real call for help. Her voice sounded foreign to me, as if language was not something I was ready to hear from her mouth, still largely the province of gutturals and labials.
“MA!” she barked again, and I scooped her up into my arms. I did not know then that the Latin infans means “incapable of speech,” but as I held her close, I knew that it was the end of her babyhood.