Geniuses

Owen tries hard to say hello, July 2, 2016.

Owen tries hard to say hello, July 2, 2016.

“A certain group of geniuses can easily learn even the world’s most difficult languages: they’re called babies.”Ashleigh Brilliant

Are you bilingual, or (even more impressive) do you speak several languages fluently? If so, I envy you. I’ve always wished that I could communicate in many different languages. I suppose it’s because I like to talk, and I like to travel, and I like to learn more about other countries and cultures. Learning a language is great for all three.

I remember being fascinated with the language skills of some of the kids who came to the programs we hosted at the small town library in California, where I was the youth services librarian. These students grew up speaking Spanish at home, but spoke mostly English at school and in other settings. They had not a trace of an accent in English, and I’m guessing they didn’t have one in Spanish either. They were quite helpful in translating for me when an adult who spoke only Spanish needed to ask me something. They were polite and never laughed at me or acted superior, despite leaving me with the idea that, in at least one respect, they certainly were.

I’ve heard people suggest that babies and children can learn language so easily because their brains are not “cluttered up” with other superfluous content. Others have said maybe young brains are just wired to learn more quickly, as they simply must. In any case, I find language acquisition fascinating to watch and contemplate.

When we met Owen for the first time ever, early in July, he was almost six weeks old. I loved looking into his face and watching him watch me talk. It often seemed he was attempting to mimic my actions, moving his lips and tongue around, and cooing in response as if he was trying to tell me something. Of course, I can be written off as a silly grandmother, but still, I think those face-to-face contacts are the beginning of learning to speak for most babies. Isn’t it wonderful to think about the way children typically learn such complex skills in such a natural way– almost teaching themselves?

When you get the chance to spend time with infants, try looking right into their eyes and speaking to them so they can watch you. Don’t feel silly if you instinctively use a high-pitched voice; apparently, babies respond to that. In any case, whether the baby picks up any new skills or not, I imagine it will put a smile on your face and brighten your day. Though these little geniuses can be noisy and inconvenient at times, they definitely make the world a much happier place.

30 Comments

  1. Sheila

    Good Monday morning and August 1st, also. ☕️ I love the Verandah that we’ll be sharing this month. I immediately noticed the longer shadows that accompany this time of year, on that porch. Baby Owen is so precious and has such bright eyes, taking in LIFE! Stephanie has such a love for Spanish, that we weren’t surprised that she majored in that and went on to teach the language at a Montessori school for several years. I’ll always remember even before college she commented about hoping to THINK in Spanish! I’d never considered that until her remark. Are you still making the daily commute to attend your classes? Please give my regards to Jeff and Matt! 💛 🙏 Sheila

    • Hi Sheila, I’m on a bit of a break from school before it starts up again in a couple of weeks for Fall semester. I haven’t had too much of a break, though, what with all the details of Jeff’s, Matt’s and now Mama’s illness. I was in Atlanta last week and am staying in touch with her docs (just talked to one this morning for awhile) as they transition Mama into long term care from the rehab facility. She is keeping a good attitude as they do more scans and plan possible radiation for the spinal tumors.

      Maybe someday Stephanie can take you to Spain! I’ve only ever been to Barcelona, but we loved it and it would be great to go back and enjoy it without a language barrier.

      Hope you are having a wonderful week! See you this evening at “the club” – we have a nice big table this month so we can bring extra treats. 😉

  2. Ann

    Julia, I hope this you tube link works.

    It’s two toddler twins talking to each other and apparently understanding each other.

    • Ann, the link did work and it was SO CUTE!!! I showed it to Jeff and he really got a kick out of it. Something tells me those kids have some chatterboxes in their household.

  3. Bobby Harris

    And now you know why I like to teach the babies. If we would imitate them by watching closely, copying the speaker, and get over being embarrassed, we would learn a new language much easier.

    • Bobby, so true! When I took Drew to Paris for the weekend (during his time at Oxford) he expressed envy at my being able to talk with people there, even with my limited French skills. I told him the biggest qualification to doing that is getting over the fear of making a fool of oneself. I found that people appreciate my making the effort and will be very gracious about helping me over the bumps. No telling how badly I mangled the language (especially the verb tenses and adjective genders) but I was consistently able to understand and make myself understood in most situations. In Italy, even though I had learned only a few travel phrases, I found much the same situation. I remember asking one of the Vatican guards where the Pieta was located (in my halting and probably TERRIBLE phrase-book Italian) and to my surprise, he promptly escorted Jeff and me through a side door and right to the statue, bypassing a HUGE line of people waiting to see it. I told Jeff next time I’ll try to learn some phrases wherever we go! You’re right, we need to take our cue from the little ones on this. It’s a perfect example of the payoff of having Beginner’s Mind.

  4. Cherie

    Owen is so cute!! Yes, I can tell you are a doting grandma, but so am I with our little Willow. She turned 1 yr old July 16 and she is already walking and nearly running!! There goes the slow days of keeping her corralled! Haha. I wish I could see her and look into her little face. I know she would be trying to tell us something. She is our great grandbaby. Love to you, Julia. I keep you and all your growing family in my prayers!

    • WOW Cherie, a great-grandbaby! What a blessing. If she is already running at 12 months old somebody has their hands full, but in a good way. Thanks for sharing your joy with us here, and especially thanks for the prayers!

  5. Babies are definitely little geniuses and delightful.
    Thanks for sharing. Blessings…

    • Thank you, Merry. I have always loved babies. They are so cuddly and sweet.

  6. I have worked with several children who speak only one language when they come to my first grade class. I had a boy from Peru who spoke only Spanish One year, and last year a girl from Samoa who only spoke Samoan. I was amazed at how fast they learned English and how eager the other children were to learn the other language as well. They do indeed pick up language skills very quickly as children.

    • Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a multilingual class where there were three groups of children who each spoke a different language fluently, along with at least some English, and there was an hour or so per day allocated to learning the languages from each other? I think it would be good on so many levels; brain development, language acquisition, self-confidence, cultural understanding etc. I would envision it as being something completely voluntary, not forced on those who aren’t “into” language, but I think it would be interesting to try it and follow the students long term to see how it worked. I had a Samoan friend in Hawaii and she taught me to say “Talofa!” 😀

      • Julia, that is a brilliant idea!
        I wonder how one could coordinate / orchestrate a volunteer after-school program like that ….

        • I don’t know, but to me, it has “grant funding” written all over it. I bet there are numerous sources for a well-designed proposal in that area of study, especially if it was an after-school program, as you suggest. I think after-school programs will always be in demand for elementary school students, and then they could actually practice the language skills in the context of fun social activities; whatever they learn is much more likely to “stick” if the students actually enjoy it.

      • What a wonderful idea! I would love to see that!

        • Thanks Nancy. I’ve never been to Japan, but from what I’ve heard of it, I could really see this happening there too. I’m told by others who have been there that they are very eager to learn other languages, including English. And of course, their emphasis on education is legendary.

  7. MaryAnn

    As you know, my dear, babies & toddlers are my all time FAVORITE! It brings great joy to be face-to-face with little ones as you stated. Like you have said many times, “seeing the world through the eyes of a child is the best way of discovery.” I wholeheartedly concur! Owen is beautiful (yes, I can say that about a boy, I just won’t tell him when he is older)! In this adorable photo, he IS talking to Grandma!
    Learning other languages is/was a strong desire of mine, also. I have many Spanish words in my vocabulary, but alas the conversational conjugation alludes me! My sign language skills are minimal, but I have enjoyed teaching what I know to children.
    I love you & miss “my Dentons”!

    • Mary Ann, we love and miss you too! Like you, I have a terribly hard time with the conjugation aspects of any language (even, to a certain extent, English) and especially with those languages that have genders to their nouns and adjectives. Then just imagine those who learn not only a whole new language, but an entirely different alphabet (as most Asians do) and on top of that, languages that have tonal variations in meaning, as Mandarin and Cantonese do, where the same word has different meanings depending on the tone that is used. I was having fits trying to learn the tones in Mandarin — I just could not seem to tell the difference between a couple of them no matter how hard I tried, especially on the short words such as “ma.” Then later a friend of mine from Singapore told me that Cantonese has SIX tones!! The mind boggles….

  8. Carolyn

    What a sweet face to see first thing in the morning. I love to watch babies when you are talking to them. I saw a two week old at church Sunday, so sweet. Owen is a cutie and I know when you are with him he gets lots of hugs, give Grady one also. Four years ago today I walked into West Clinic and had my last chemo treatment. Three weeks ago my oncologist gave me a great report. I still have to have a hernia fixed sometime. For give me if I have told you all this. Hope things are going well with Jeff, really how is he doing? We are praying for him and you. Stay strong! Close for now. Sending love and hugs to you all.

    • Carolyn, I just love it when a baby or young child sitting in front of us at church or elsewhere turns and makes eye contact and then smiles. The other day I was at Kohl’s and a very cute little boy (who looked about 2) said “HI!” as if I was his best friend or something. I loved it. I said HI right back, but was afraid to say more, lest his Mama think I was a bad person out to kidnap him.

      Wow, four years ago was your LAST chemo treatment? Time does fly. What a joy to have that behind you! Jeff will probably never finish with chemo until right before he dies. In fact, he is wearing is chemo pump now as I write this. The news has been quite discouraging but we are not giving up. Staying strong is really the only option at this point, or really any point, when you get right down to it. He is an incredibly brave man and we manage to find joy and laughter each day, along with all the sadness and stress. Thanks for your prayers. It means so much to know you are with us in spirit on this incredibly difficult journey. Love to you and Terry.

  9. Brilliant, Brilliant!
    Good morning, Julia!
    You may know that the higher-pitched (and differing structure and intonation) used in addressing infants is a real phenomenon, called “motherese.” Some folks hold that it helps the child more easily understand what is being said, and that it’s integral to language learning, which is likely true (especially for languages like Mandarin, which use tonal variations to impart meaning). Consider: 1. It is closer in range to the child’s natural voice, encouraging them to participate with greater confidence. 2. It is generally slower and simplified, allowing them earlier comprehension and success (which we all know is a motivator). 3. Language learning (communication, in general) is an adaptive behavior that makes life simpler for everyone. 4. Babies love to hear singing, I cannot think of a culture that doesn’t have a musical tradition, and motherese is closer to music than most speech.
    It is no wonder that you AND Owen are both trying your very hardest to connect!
    That photo is just delightful!

    • Susan, thanks for this interesting observation. I was just writing to someone in one of the other comments about tonal variations. Interestingly, I actually used the silly high-pitched voice to talk to Pasha (our beloved Schipperke who lived with us over 16 years) and he seemed to respond to it, too, though he did not babble back as Owen does. I naturally sing to babies all the time if nobody else is around (and sometimes even if they are) and I pretty much make up songs as I go along, with or without rhyming. Usually the babies smile at me when I act silly and that is all the encouragement I need. (I wonder if they are thinking, Hey, is this person of the same species as my parents?) 😀 BTW the other day when I was in Atlanta to see Mama, and spent the night at Drew and Megan’s home, Grady was in my room talking to me, and before he left, he said “I have to go talk to the grownups now.” 😀 😀 😀

      • HAHAHA Ha! Oh, that’s funny!
        Also, I think you’re right, in a sense; if not a different species than many, perhaps a different culture, where there’s less division along generational lines.
        Big hugs!

        • Thanks, Susan. Drew told us another Grady funny that just happened on his third birthday last week. He opened a card that had three one-dollar bills in it and said “Wow, money! I’m an adult now!” Then a minute later he added “I can take my parents out to eat now.” 😀 AS IF!

  10. Julia, our son, David, and his lovely Japanese wife, Ayano, who live in Tokyo, had their first child (our first grandchild!) five months ago. They named him William Kaito (first and middle names) but call him Kaito. They speak Japanese and English to him so I am very excited that he is going to be bilingual. We haven’t had the joy of meeting him in person and holding him yet (😪) but when we talk on the phone, David says, “Kaito, it’s Grandma,” and he says that Kaito stares at the phone and listens intently to me. Health issues have kept us from traveling to Tokyo so far but I hope that changes and that we get to go! What a lovely post you have written yet again.

    By the way, I don’t know why my comments on your blog are being written from my WordPress account. I wish they were coming just from my name (Nancy), but I think you know that. This is one of those technological thingies that I haven’t figured out yet. I created a WordPress account but haven’t tried yet to use it.

    • Nancy, that is so great that Kaito is learning two languages from birth on. Have you ever tried to use Skype with a cell phone? Drew was using that (or something like it) to talk to Megan, Grady and Owen while he was here briefly a couple of days, and I got to share in the video phone call. It was great! Since Owen is too little to talk, I was especially happy to see his sweet face. Can they use Skype from Japan? We used to use it for free when Drew was in England, so maybe it’s free from Japan, too.

      I really do hope you get to go to Japan someday. My next blog post will feature a picture of one of my favorite places in Hawaii, that has a building that’s a replica of a larger one in Japan.

      I think the WordPress system prefers to have comments come through WordPress because most people who have an account also have blogs, and it makes it easy to just click on their Gravatar and pop over to their blogs and read about what they’ve been up to. Also it does make the commenting easier, I think. Before I started paying to be ad-free, supposedly WordPress users did not see the ads, either, which for me would have made it worth signing up for an account even if I never used it. When I visit other blogs I never see ads, unless they are monetized and self-hosted. I have a strong dislike for most advertising.

  11. LB

    Oh that Owen is a sweetheart!
    I can just visualize you holding him close, making eye contact, and watching the two of you talk to each other and smile at each other.
    So glad you have this new joy in your life.

    • Thank you Laurie! He really is adorable. He is so cuddly and sweet. I wish we could see him more often, but the photos and videos are fun too! 😀

  12. It is true they are geniuses. My daughter picked up Spanish easily in the beginning (2yrs) before she started to resist. She didn’t have to study conjugations, read books or find tutors. I just talked to her and showed her cartoon videos.

    • She is very, very lucky to have had someone to teach her the natural way. I so wish I had the ability to speak many languages. Perhaps one day I may learn yet! Thanks for your comment.

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