In order to construct my personal language history, it seems only fitting to bring up the earliest memory that I can exactly date. I may have retained fragments of earlier times, but I know for sure that I remember my third birthday. I remember crawling on top of my kitchen table toward my birthday cake, surrounded by my parents, siblings, and grandparents. I recall being utterly awestruck as I edged toward that cake, which was beautifully decorated with little candies and slowly rotating on a mechanical platform. I can even picture my grandmother warning me to not eat all the gumdrops my mother used to decorate the cake; I should leave some for everyone else, she said. Unfortunately, what I don’t remember was what I said in reply— or what I said at all that early in my life, for that matter. I distinctly remember understanding language, but I have no recollection of using it myself at age three.
After a few futile attempts to remember my earliest days of speaking, I finally decided that the only way to report that segment of my life was to call my mother and ask her what she remembered. What followed was a twenty-minute session of her rehashing old baby stories of mine that I can’t believe I couldn’t remember right away. As it turns out, although she remembered a lot of specific moments in my childhood, she couldn’t remember for sure what my first word was. Some good the baby book did.
My mother believes that I was able to speak earlier than most children, or at least use more complicated forms of speech earlier. According to her, I could repeat sequences of words at a young age. I would hear one of my parents say a sentence and then repeat it verbatim. The most memorable example of that is when I repeated one of the interjections my mother made while changing my diaper. Apparently, I was also a vocal child. Once when my mother was playing organ during a church service, I got bored and decided it would be fun to yank some extension cords snaking under my feet. I unplugged the organ, and when I heard that the music stopped and the congregation became silent, I cried out “Uh oh” loud enough for the entire church to break into laughter.
Another of my mother’s favorite stories about my early use of language is my habit of creating dialogues with marbles. My mother’s friends would warn her not to let her little toddler play with marbles— I’d probably swallow them and have to go to the hospital. But my mom didn’t listen to them. Instead, she listened to me as I assigned all my marbles rhyming names like Charley, Marley, Farley, and Carley, and had them talk to each other as if they were people. What is most remarkable to my mother is that I grasped the concept of rhyming at an early age, not to mention imagination. This activity carried on later when I first received G.I. Joes, but by that time I had even added shooting and explosion sound effects.
By the time I was in kindergarten, I began dictating adventure stories to my mother, whom I requested to write down my stories. I can still see her in the back seat with me, scribbling the plot and dialogue of my latest thriller onto a napkin during a long road trip. Disney’s movie The Jungle Book must have had an influence on my early language, since I can particularly remember my imaginary heroes hunting for bad guys in a rain forest.
So, what causes a child to excel in language? Was it by chance that I became a natural storyteller at the age when most kids are usually more concerned with learning how to tie their shows and read clocks? Naturally, my mother’s answer to that question is a resounding “No.” She gives a good portion of the credit to herself. She and my father frequently read and re-read books to me. I was a big fan of Go Dog Go and Are You My Mother?, she said. When I became obsessed with action figures, my father read me the character biographies that came as part of the cardboard packaging. I made sure to save all of the G.I. Joes’ back stories so that my parents could read them to me again later.
My mother believes that music played a part in my language development as well. My mother sang while playing piano for my entertainment and would sometimes turn on her old record player and watch me sing, dance, and clap my hands. I don’t know much about the inner workings of children’s minds, but my mother has a Master’s in Education, so I will have to take her words as truth that something about music helps children’s speech develop.
Toward the end of the phone call, my mother also named my father as a chief agent in my language development. Dad, who was a full-time Lutheran minister until I reached Second Grade, sang to me from the then-new blue Lutheran hymnal. I have my doubts, but my mother believes that hymns may have helped me become the Creative Writing major that I am since the complex words may have built my vocabulary. She added that hymns are stories in themselves, albeit short and somewhat repetitious.
Therefore, my mother’s hypothesis is that because I received plentiful auditory stimulation in the form of music and a healthy dose of literature in the form of children’s books and hymns, I may have developed extraordinary language skills. But that is only a guess. After all, it is only a guess that my abilities were anything special in the first place. Although I would like to believe that my mom is right, there is very little solid proof. I can think of no source more biased than my mother. The only truly objective accounts of my past are the few instances of video documentation my parents have somewhere in the living room closet. Even those don’t prove much, other than that I had a pirate-themed party for my sixth birthday and that I used to enjoy jumping in piles of raked leaves.
The most significant memory I have of my early language was after I moved from Chicagoland to an Illinois suburb of St. Louis in the summer of 1994. Once school started, I noticed that people sounded different than people in Chicago. I can remember feeling squeamish when I heard the slight Southern accents some residents of Southern Illinois use. Is “Missouri” really pronounced “Mizzurah,” I wondered? Why is this lady pronouncing the word “fruit” “freoot” instead of “froot?” Why does the word “crayon” sudden sound more like the word for the jeweled adornment a king wears on his head? The funny thing about this is that the Southernness of the Southern Illinois drawl was only relative— my perception on the matter has changed. What once sounded odd to me sounds normal, which probably means that I have adopted a little of that manner of speaking myself. The voice of someone from my hometown of Alton, Illinois may sound like a Southern accent to someone from Chicago, but it could also sound like a Northern accent to someone from Tennessee. A Chicagoan might not be able to tell the difference between someone from Southern Illinois and someone from the South, and someone from Nashville may not be able to differentiate someone from St. Louis with someone from Chicago. I, however, can do so easily.
My early attitudes about language are still present today. As a result of my move to a new area, I have always been interested in regional dialects. In addition, my love of storytelling has come a long way from creating dialogue with marbles and having my mother write my tales of adventure on a napkin from her purse. I am now pursuing a major in Rhetoric with a concentration in Creative Writing, and hope to someday publish novels, short stories, and works of creative nonfiction. Yet my interest in reading the literature of others will have to suffice until I get my big break, so I plan to begin a career in publishing when I am finished with college.
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