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This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, mow language’s lawn.
I’ve got a couple of pieces of good news to impart, so please stick around till the end of the show. But let’s kick off with a little word history, sponsored by Squarespace.com.
Whatever happened to ‘thou’? And its comrades 'thee', 'thy' and 'thine': they used to be all over the place, being the singular form of 'you' - yeah, that’s right, it wasn’t always the case that English had one word for both the singular and plural forms of the second person pronoun. There used to be two; but like languages such as French, the plural form, 'you', was also used as the polite, formal way to address someone. And evidently English speakers in the Middle Ages were SO polite and formal, the informal singular 'thou' disappeared almost entirely! It hung on for a bit in some Northern English dialects, and the Quakers’ vocabulary, and in quite a lot of poetry and religious texts - thanks to which, thou’s reputation did a 180, and it became MORE formal than the formal 'you'. I think it’s because it seems archaic and old, and old things gain a certain authority just by being old. “I know grandma says terrible things, but show some respect because she was born before the First World War!”
That was thou, sponsored by Squarespace.com, thine all-in-one platform with which thou canst build the website or gallery or online store of thy dreams. It’s quick, it’s easy, there are lots of slick templates to choose from, there’s 24/7 online support, and you get a domain name thrown in if you sign up for a year - and if you do want to do that, you can also get 10% off if you use the code Allusion.
On with the show.
[baby voice] Wook at your widdle face. Who’s a cutie pie? Who’s a cutie pie? Here comes the aeroplane - [cough] [/baby voice]
When you’re talking to a baby, it’s hard to maintain dignity. In fact even the baby, who can’t talk, thinks jigsaws are for eating, and is probably sitting in its own effluvium, is more dignified than you at that point.
But, good news! All those stupid voices, and banal rhetorical questions, are helping the baby to learn language.
BJ: My name is Ben Jeffes, and I’m a child psychologist.
HZ: [baby voice] Here comes the psychologist! [/baby voice]
BJ: Most parents instinctively talk to their children in a way that helps them to learn language. If you listen to a typical adult talking to a one-year-old or 18-month-old, they get this sort of singsong tone in their voice, and they elongate vowels and talk very slowly, and there’ll be lots of big exaggerated facial expressions and hands moving around. That is interesting for the baby to look at, and it holds their attention that way; but also it’s helping them to identify the rhythms of speech, and understand where one word is finishing and a new one is starting. That’s what adults do instinctively when they’re talking to children. It sounds ridiculous, and sometimes you feel like an idiot while you’re doing it, but actually it’s sometimes quite hard NOT to do that when you talk to a baby, it’s hard to talk to them straight like you would to an adult, because it’s almost hardwired in you to do that, to help them to learn speech.
HZ: Because I’m not a parent, so have the habit of talking to children like they’re adults, am I damaging them? Am I inhibiting their ability to learn?
BJ: No, I think you’re alright! It sometimes gets called 'baby talk'. Baby talk helps, but it’s not essential. I don’t think you’re doing anyone a disservice by not talking to them like a baby, even if they are one; I think you can get away with it.
HZ: Whether you talk to a baby like they’re an adult, [baby voice] or a baby [/baby voice], the most important thing is that you ARE talking to them.
BJ: The language centres of your brain develop as you’re being spoken to. When a child hears speech, that’s triggering the part of their brain that processes speech and learns new words; and if that part of the brain isn’t activated, it starts being used for other things. So it starts to limit your potential after a bit, because you’re not exercising those muscles.
HZ: After what point is it very difficult for them to catch up? What are the most important years verbally?
BJ: The most important years are the first ones.
HZ: Oh. Until they start talking, you feel like you can get away with it; but really not?
BJ: Not really. It would be wrong to say that it’s all about the first year or two; it’s not. But the first years are definitely the most important ones. If a child hasn’t been spoken to much by the time they’re three or four, it’s going to take them an awfully long time to catch up. And it’ll probably affect them in some way all through their school life, if not longer than that.
HZ: So if you’re a parent who’s so knackered, the best chat you can offer is ‘Urrghghgh’, that’s another pebble to throw on the mountain of guilt.
Now, in most cases, when adults refers to themselves in the third person, it’s the verbal equivalent of wearing sunglasses in the dark - a sign that a celebrity has embarked upon a one-way journey into the Valley of Vanity. However, parents of young children tend to talk in the third person a lot, both to refer to themselves and the child. “Let go of mummy’s eyeball. No, that’s mummy’s sandwich. Where’s baby?” That, too, is performing a valuable function.
BJ: Parents instinctively from when their children are very young, even when they’re born, will help them to establish a sense of self in all kinds of ways. Physically, stroking the baby’s face, tucking their fingers into the palm of the baby’s hands - and what that’s doing, aside from being a pleasant sensation for the baby, is helping to establish their physical limits - to say, “This is where your body starts, and this is where mine begins, and this is the boundary between us.”
So just in that way, they’re helping children understand who they are. But as they get older, parents will help children establish a sense of self verbally in lots of different ways. By talking to their children in the third person, saying “Mummy” and “Daddy” and using the baby’s name, what they’re really doing is giving their child three very important words: the names of their two most important caregivers, and they’re also telling them who they are, what their name is. So they’re giving them the potential to differentiate between them and their parents, and that stage is when they can start to verbally understand that they’re different to other people around them.
HZ: At what sort of age can you stop referring to yourself in the third person and start using normal pronouns?
BJ: You don’t have to decide for yourself; children are quite good at doing that sort of thing for you. Around 18 months, children will start to use their own name to refer to themselves in the third person. Before that, they might use their own name, but it might feel like a game or like they’re parrotting it back to you. But around 18 months it becomes clear they understand that is used exclusively for them; they’ll say it and point to themselves, like they point to their mum or dad, and it’s clear they understand these people have separate identities. That’s around 18 months.
HZ: So that’s when they stop being solipsists.
BJ: Yes. They start to use the language independently, not as part of a game, or something you’re telling them to say.
HZ: They understand that other people are a thing?
BJ: Yes, exactly. They understand other human beings are a thing; and via the use of the third person, they understand who mum and dad are, and also who they are.
HZ: I also wonder whether this instinctive inclination towards using the third person and titles is to avoid pronouns, which are a really tricky part of speech.
BJ: Indeed, and you’re right - they’re a nightmare!
HZ: Because they mean different things according to who’s using them.
BJ: That’s right. So to teach a baby that ‘I’ can be ‘me’ and ‘you’ can be ‘I’ - it’s an almost impossible thing to teach, but children are surprisingly smart in that way. Even at two years of age, they can start acquiring it for themselves.
HZ: Phew! Those tiny but brilliant baby brains are capable of untangling many linguistic problems automatically - research also shows that children raised to be bilingual or multilingual are able to sort out which language is which, when they’re only a few months old. Even though they can’t yet talk themselves or necessarily understand what is being said in either language, they can distinguish between each language’s pitch and word length and the different facial movements. It might typically take them till they’re three or four years old to be able to speak without muddling up the languages - but that’s alright, because whether they’re using one or many languages, infants are often jazzing it. A lot of the time, when they form a phrase correctly, it’s by chance rather than because they’ve fully grasped the construction.
BJ: Um - some of it is guesswork; sometimes it is uncannily accurate. It’s amazing how a 2-year-old can pick up a bit of grammar without you being aware you’ve taught it to them. They get good at it very quickly. And they’re very very curious. Your typical two-year-old will spend an awful lot of time saying “Wassat?” “Where go that?” Where are we going, what’s that for, why why why?
HZ: The whys go on for a remarkably long time.
BJ: My niece, when she was that age, would catch me in the Why Loop.
HZ: Urgh. We’ve all been trapped in this existential circuit.
BJ: You want to engage your niece and talk to her nicely. “We’re going to go to the park now.” “Why?” “Because it’s a nice day.” “Why?” And she would keep going, and I couldn’t work out the point at which it was ok to say, “We’re stopping now.”
HZ: Because you’ve got to respect them for being inquisitive, but on the other hand, it does feel like they’re mocking you.
BJ: Right. And at what point is it ok to say, “Can you stop being inquisitive now? Because I’ve answered you six times, and I just want to kick this football around.”
HZ: “Go and watch TV, shut it down.”
OK, I said earlier I had news.
News item number 1: Allusionist T-shirts now exist! So if you fancy emblazoning the Allusionist across your bosom, visit chopshopstore.com, where you can also buy Tshirts for some of the other Radiotopishows like Theory of Everything and 99% Invisible. And I have more Allusionist merch coming imminently. So set your imminence timers.
News item number 2: for the next month, there will be new episodes of the Allusionist every week. Why? You’ll find out - next week.
[baby voice] Why? [/baby voice]
Oh, let's not do this...
[baby voice] Why? Why why why why whyyyy? [/baby voice]
The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX. As is The Truth, movies for your ears. If you’ve been thinking, “Audio drama is all [knock knock knock] hello? [door creak] Oh hello vicar, I was just about to pour some tea [pouring sound, slurping sound]” then prepare for that assumption to be [ripping paper, toilet flushing] because The Truth is absolutely remarkable. Find it, and all of the Radiotopian shows, at radiotopia.fm.
Radiotopia exists thanks to you munificent listeners, the Knight Foundation, and Mailchimp. Mailchimp’s randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
decrepitate, verb, technical (of a solid): disintegrate audibly when heated.
Try using it in an email today.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman. Thanks very much Ben Jeffes, and Martin Austwick for the music. You can find the show at facebook.com/allusionistshow and twitter.com/allusionistshow, and at theallusionist.org, where there will be a new episode next week.
[baby voice] Here comes the end! [/baby voice]