The vitality of language

  • Photo illustration by Shaun C. Gibson, photos by Bureau of Reclamation, David Arbour, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Jim Peaco/National Park Service, ISTOCK

My husband and I have volunteered at a raptor rehabilitation center for years, and when we decided to adopt a toddler, the center's staff threw us a baby shower on the lawn outside the kestrel's cage. They presented our new daughter, Maia, with bird-embossed T-shirts and a stuffed toy turkey vulture.

We ourselves received a book titled What to Expect: The Toddler Years. "It's the bible of child-rearing," insisted a volunteer with three children.

Jonathan and I had only one book -- The Toddler Owner's Manual, a behavior modification guide that approaches children as if they're computers. But impressed with the size of What to Expect (at 900 pages, it weighed more than my daughter), I thumbed through the tome and paused at the section titled "Getting Your Toddler Talking."

"Language is vital," note the authors. "It allows a child to not only communicate with others, but to think to himself. It's the primary tool for learning."

I'm a journalism teacher and a writer, but I've been thinking more about language since I adopted Maia. My love of words began in first grade; the teacher asked us to draw three women in black pointy hats and instructed us to print "Which witch is which?"

It cracked me up.

At the dinner table, my husband and I regaled each other with wordplay. But now, we sat beside a toddler who knew only a smattering of vocabulary, including the standards "mama" and "dada," along with "cat" and "dog."

I panicked. What if she stopped there, unable in her childhood to describe chocolate ice cream, stymied in her adolescence to express first love, tongue-tied at age 20 when her therapist questioned her irrational fear of birds?

"Expand experiences," the authors of What to Expect advise. "Expose your toddler to a wide variety of environments."

They recommend the park, the supermarket and the mall as conducive to language acquisition. The day after Maia arrived, I strapped her into a pack and worked my usual shift at the raptor center. As I made up trays of quail for the resident birds, she studied the injured owl in its mew. I seized the teachable moment.
"That's a Western screech owl," I said.

Experts tell parents to label everything their children see, so I enunciated nouns as I walked around the center with Maia. "Snowy owl," I said outside the white bird's cage. "Gyrfalcon," I continued, praying I'd pronounced the name correctly lest my baby embarrass herself at some future avian-themed cocktail party. "Swainson's hawk." I pointed at the dark bird. "William Swainson had a big ego. He also named the Swainson's thrush, the Swainson's warbler, and the Swainson's crow ... which is actually a butterfly."

Maia laughed and clapped her hands. Could it be that she already appreciated irony?

The authors of What to Expect urge parents to comment on sounds like birdsong and sirens. But the raptor center sits high above Eugene. Sirens aren't audible, and our birds don't sing as much as they bark, shriek, and screech.

"Who cooks for you!" I hooted to Maia, imitating a barred owl. "The great-horned says, 'Whoo. Whoo-hoo-hoo-hoo. Whoo-hoo.' Soon, you'll be able to imitate all the owls."

Maia grinned and uttered a coy "hoo!"

My husband walked across the lawn and we shifted Maia to his back as the center's director drove up with a pet carrier. "Injured great-horned," she said, heading for the clinic. "Jonathan, I need you to hold him while I check his wings."

Maia craned her head to look over her new daddy's shoulder as he held the owl's legs in gloved hands. I recalled the importance of narrating actions to enhance the toddler's new vocabulary.

"Daddy's helping to bandage the owl's broken wing," I said. "I'm cutting up chicken to feed a sick screech owl." I pointed to the stunned, sooty bird huddling in a carrier with tiny melted talons. "He got stuck in a chimney," I explained. "The owners heard him hooting and tried to smoke him out."

Maia studied the owl, brown eyes solemn. I opened another door upon a bird with its head tilted sideways. "Saw-whet," I said. "It ate rodent poison, and can't hold its head up straight."

I moved to the last carrier. "This is a barred owl. She got her leg stuck in a trap, and someone found her starving. We'll probably have to euthanize her."

I looked at my daughter. Her smile had faded, replaced by a furrowed brow. "Bird," she whispered to the emaciated owl. My heart sank.

Language acquisition is wonderful. Narration and new experiences broaden a toddler's sense of the world. Still, there are concepts I don't want Maia to know yet, sorrows she'll give voice to soon enough. For now, I want her to focus on our new joyful life together.

I carried her outside to stand under the trees. "See the stars?" I pointed at Venus, sparkling on the horizon. "Smell the firs?"

A pair of wild barred owls hooted in the forest bordering the raptor center. "Hear the birds?" I told Maia. "Say, 'Goodnight, owls. Stay safe.' "

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