We teach language. Most of us without a degree in linguistics.
We tell a child the barking furry thing is a dog and they believe us. We tell them the color of a lemon is yellow and that the pointy thing on the end of your face is a nose and that the sky is up. And by golly, they mortar these truths into the edifice of language that’s being built in their brains.
It helps of course that what we tell them is enforced by the outside world. I mean, to hear other people calling the barking furry things dogs supports our declaration that that’s what they are. When my father told my kids years ago that Werther’s toffees were broccoli they believed him for only a day. Long enough to remember him saying it and long enough to remember laughing about it afterward.
My youngest, when he was just beginnning to grasp the mother tongue – he wasn’t even speaking in complete sentences yet – was helping me unload grocery bags one day. He pulled out a clear, plastic produce bag of kiwis and proudly yelled “Potatoes!”
I smiled, resisted the urge to squeeze him, and told him they were actually kiwi.
His grin melted away and a look of fear gripped him. I was messing with his world. “Potatoes,” he ventured.
“They look like potatoes buy they are really kiwi,” I said. An on-the-ball mommy would have sliced one of each open and showed the developing toddler the difference. Hey, I had dinner to get started.
His tiny blond brows furrowed. He looked at the bag in his hands, at me – the person he trusted – and then at the bag again. It was like I had just told him the barking furry thing is an alligator. He was not going to be fooled. The mortar around “potato,” which I had helped him slather on, had long hardened
“Potatoes,” he said. And that was that.
Oh, the mix of power and powerlessness in tutoring our young heirs in the spoken language.