Last fall, the Radiolab podcast tackled the question of what life would be like without words. If you could not speak, or even understand language, what would the implications be? What would life be like? It was really a fascinating listen, as all of their shows tend to be. (If you’re not already a fan of the podcast, it’s time to get on board. It’s one of my favorite things to listen to on my commute to work every day.)
One of the stories they told was of a 27-year-old man who had never before been taught language. He had been deaf his entire life, but no one had even taught him sign language, let alone to read and write. In the story, a woman decided to take on the project of teaching him, and after a long, difficult struggle, finally succeeded. A few years later, when asked what his life was like before he could communicate, he was unable to describe it. He referred to it as a dark period, the details of which are hard to remember. According to him, when he acquired language it was like his eyes were opened to the world around him, and he couldn’t even think the way he used to think.
This is a fascinating story, but especially so now that my son is beginning to speak. Words are now tumbling out of him one at a time, at an alarming rate. If my son’s mouth were a firearm (forgive the reference, I’m from the South), his mouth would have progressed from single-action to semi-automatic to automatic. We are now at the point where he’s repeating almost everything that comes from music, movies, television and (the most frightening) his parents. The past two months have been a wild ride as we’ve watched his communication abilities skyrocket.
If the story from the “Words” podcast is any indication, it seems that memory and language are integrally linked. As I write this I am sitting in a café with high ceilings, papier-mache lamps and loud children. The coffee I’m drinking is black and slightly bitter, but warms me from the over-applied air conditioning. So much of what I just described are concepts that would be difficult to understand without words to describe them. When framed in this way, it makes sense that our children begin to develop memories between two- and five-years-old, as that is when their language begins to blossom, and their thinking moves from the concrete to the abstract.
We are currently witnessing the beginning of this process in a very real way, and I love knowing that my son is gaining an ever increasing awareness of the world around him. We’re teaching him new words every day, and I love the thought of those words being more than just sounds that identify something; they’re the transference of language into concepts, concepts into experiences, and experiences into his memories of us.
What I’d love to hear are stories from parents who have already been through this stage. What was your experience like when your kids were around this age? What did you see in their development that can give me some hint of what I have to look forward to?
Caleb Gardner is an amateur father and husband who writes at The Exceptional Man and dabbles in photography, design, and music. When listening to the cacophony of modern-day America, Caleb prefers a side of Scotch. He calls Chicago home, and in winter, less-nice things.