We Are Our Words

by: Diane Ackerman

From infancy on, the language we use to think, remember, and describe the world makes each of us unique, says a noted poet and naturalist.


whether they’re born into a world of high-rises or tundra, jack-hammers or machine guns, Quechua or French. The ultimate immigrants, babies arrive ready to learn the language of their parents, with a brain flexible enough to adapt to any locale. Whatever language they hear becomes an indelible part of their lives, providing the words they’ll use to know and be known. If two languages are spoken at home, they’ll become bilingual. One of my nieces is trilingual, because her Brazilian mother spoke Portuguese as well as English to her from birth, and then together they learned Italian. A bonus of bilingual-ism is that it forces a child to favor one set of rules while ignoring another, and that trains the brain early on to focus and discriminate, to ignore what’s irrelevant and discover the arbitrari-ness of words.

Learning language can begin surprisingly early, at around 6 months, when babies start to identify the special sounds of their native tongues, like the umlauted u of German that requires a little lip pucker or the squeaky “e “ of American English’s “street.” Long before words make sense, babies learn a circus of familiar sounds—all the exotic vowels and leaping rhythms. Before their first birthday, they can recognize a foreign language, analyze word order and memorize sentence and sound patterns in their native language. Babies the world over babble alike at first, then gradually babble in their own language. Children born deaf can babble with their hands. But we’re not the planet’s only babblers. Some monkeys babble, which suggests that babbling evolved long before language, perhaps as a plea for affection or to summon Mom. In that case, language may have bloomed from a natural urge to babble.

Human babies learn language the way most baby birds learn their songs—by imitating grown-ups. Like birds, we have a learning window. A bird or child raised in isolation, then introduced to its song or language later in life, won’t be able to fully learn it. There’s a prime time—the first few years—dining which the brain is so plastic, so busily restructuring itself, that one can almost inhale a language. Children acquire the basic rules of grammar before they enter school, and it doesn’t matter which language or how complicated the rules. By puberty, the process requires active learning skills, repetition and hard work .Learning a language as a grown-up is heavy lifting. Language is so difficult, only children can master it.

How miraculous human language seems. But no more so than hummingbirds being born with the ability to navigate through jungles, over mountains and open seas; (Editor’s note- interested in more on this unique bird? Main Menu - Just the Facts - “Bird that kisses flowers”) for bloodhounds with a talent for discriminating among thousands of odors. Because species evolve what serves them best, the ability to decipher complex rules of language is woven into our genetic suit.

We use words to label and categorize, to discern subtle differences, to group related things, to build endless lists. (Editor’s note. Dreaming of writing “your” book? Main Menu - Words of Wisdom - “English Language” ) But also to create false divisions, false distinctions and false unities, which become possible the moment they’re put into words. Thanks to Language, we have a verbal memory that allows us to learn and remember without physically experiencing something. Through writing and other technology, we no longer have to memorize the endless fine rubble that passes for everyday life. We make lists, we take notes, we file things away. Books invite one to view another’s mind, self; suite of defining memories. (BOOKS? Writers? Editor’s note: Main Menue - Think About it - “Faith of a Writer.”) Instead of straining to remember everything, we can deploy our attention and many neurons and synapses) to toil at other jobs—coining new games and ideas, for instance.

Words can gap gushing emotions and trawl for memories. They can highlight and name things when we need perspective, and they’re excel-

lent handles when we need to grip a slippery notion. As social beasts, we

trade words with others, negotiate meanings, use words as currency. Words form the backbone of what we think. So, although it is possible to have thought without words, it’s rarely possible to know what one thinks without bronzing it in words. Otherwise, the thoughts seem to float away~ Refine the words, and you refine the thought. But that   sometimes means squishing a square thought into a round hole and saying what you can instead of what you mean. We try to remedy that by piling up words like brush-strokes in what we call descriptions or explanations or by blending images (words, paint, brushstrokes) or by adding emotional sounds to what we say.

“Please do that for me” means altogether different things if you say it pleadingly or in separate jabs. How eager humans are to complicate things. Isn’t language complicated enough? Apparently not. Every family invents its own dialect, as members bring home this or that expression from school or work and add televisionese or song lyrics to the general mix. A separate lingo binds people, but I find another motive persuasive too: our endless need to express the sheer feel of being alive. How does the brain convey that to itself and others?~ Only through language, memory’s accomplice.


PARADE MAGAZINE, Sunday, May 30, 2004

Contributing Editor Diane Ackerman

(She frequently writes about nature and human nature. This story was adapted from her new book, An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and the Mystey of the Brain (Scribner), out next month.)

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