Monday, July 11, 2016

Birth of a conversationalist

I was talking on the phone with my three-year-old granddaughter, who wanted to know what happened while we were canoeing (flipped the boat) and whether we got wet (yes) and then "How many wet?"

Very many wet. Every wet that it was possible to get. We got all the wet.

What charmed me about this conversation was not just her creative use of grammar but the fact that it was a real conversation, with two people asking questions and listening to answers and following up. For a long time our phone conversations were fairly one-sided and monosyllabic, but suddenly she's become an adept little conversationalist. How did this happen?

Of course she gets lots of practice. She's at the stage when she likes to give voice to her toys, making stuffed animals or toy trucks or Lego bricks talk to each other at great length. It's delightful to watch a small person learn to use language to form connections with a community, a skill I suppose most human people possess.

But then why do so many lose that skill as they age? I have students who don't know how to converse with me, which is perhaps understandable since I'm this big scary red-pen-wielding professor (even when my pens use green ink), but many of them don't seem to care about conversing with each other, except through their smart phones. I've been told that today's digital natives possess all kinds of finely honed communication skills, but if that's so, why is it so difficult sometimes to get them to respond to a simple Hello?

I realize that this complaint marks me as an old grump grumbling about kids these days!  But I'll tell you: one small child asking how many wet tells me more about the human family and our relationship with language than dozens of blank stares from texting students.

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