The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

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MAY 2020 Issue
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I understand my daughter very well. She is 18 months old and has only a handful of words: banana (na-na), hello (hel-lo, bon-jou, cou-cou), water (lo), take this (ti-uh), shoe (shaw), apple (up-pa), goodbye (buh-buh) and listen to me, I need something (ma-ma). The few words she has are a combination of French and English. She hears one at home and the other everywhere else.

But this is not the limit of her language. She is fluent in babble. The majority of her language is nonsensical: a remarkable lexicon of sounds and intonations that suggest a complexity of thought and emotion. She captures the musicality of language without the words. Her babble is any and every language. It is a becoming-language. I am fascinated by her babble and I find myself repeating it back to her. We spend days speaking to each other in bloubiboulga and gobbledygook, and yet we understand each other well.

Her babble is paired with an impressive repertoire of gestures. She points, snaps her fingers, raises her arms, waves and blows kisses, dances and stomps her feet, tickles herself, and giggles. She is full of expression. Everything is big and exaggerated, and it all comes out of a tiny body.

This is a beautiful moment in development. Her capacity to express herself is all possibility and potential—her babble could become any language. From here on her acquisition of language is an edit. Her babble will become more coherent each day as she pares down her phonemes and organizes them into words. The variety of tones and sounds she makes will reduce and eventually conform to what is understood in one language or another. Her expressions will become subtler as they are replaced by words.

The acquisition of language is simultaneous with increased independence. She is walking. She occupies herself with activities and impromptu games. She is creating a world of her own. I feel her acquisition of language coincides with a separation, and I feel a sense of loss.

While I am teaching her language, she has been teaching me babble. She has reminded me that meaningful communication is not dependent on language. I am no longer sure how much language facilitates understanding between fluent adults. Sometimes language is distraction, it is noise, it is everything but what we mean. Children, on the other hand, say exactly what they mean. This is why their speech is so confronting. We are not used to exchanges in which speech and its meaning are so direct.

As I type this, I hear her rustling herself awake from a nap. Her hand pokes out from between the slats as I hear a mischievous giggle. An invitation to play awaits.


Kathleen Ritter

Kathleen Ritter is an artist, writer and faculty at Parsons Paris, France.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

All Issues