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Beginning With Words

June 15, 2003

For weeks now, my two-year-old has had the obnoxious habit of repeating himself over and over. At first I continued to answer him patiently – the same answer ten times in a row.

Next I resorted to ignoring him; but the questioning went on. Finally, I threatened to spank him if he kept asking the same question after he had received the answer. Then one day, he asked me a question that did not need an answer - and then asked it again in a different way. “I see no stars up there, Mom?” “Mom, do I see no stars up there?”

A light went on in my brain. I began to recall my own experiences with language learning in Papua New Guinea. Could my two-year-old possibly be cognizant enough to be learning his first language in such a structured manner? So, for the first time, instead of answering his question, “I don’t know whether you see any stars or not, Joe,” I repeated his phrase back to him with the proper grammar. “I don’t see any stars up there, Mom.” He looked at me with absolute delight and jumped up and down yelling, “I don’t see any stars up there, Mom!” The next few days were an intense learning session. Joseph’s ability to talk grew by leaps and bounds. He questioned me continually; and now - instead of answering what had appeared as dumb questions, I would carefully articulate the grammar and phonetics of a whole exchange for him. He repeated me until he could say it all properly without coaching. Joe: “You got to wash a dishes, Mom?” Mom: “Do you need to wash the dishes, Mom?” Joe: “Do you need to wash the dishes, Mom?” Mom: “Yes, Joseph, I need to wash the dishes. Would you like to help me?” Joe: “Like to help me?” Mom: “I want to help you, Mom.” Joe: “I want to help you, Mom.” His affection for me became hilariously dear. We were close before, but now we had become best buddies in just a few hours. I was suddenly the only person in the world who could tell him exactly what he wanted to know. My curiosity was aroused; did all toddlers face this problem? I began to listen in Wal-mart and the bank when I went to town. What I heard was different levels of understanding. Some children seemed to be under the impression that there wasn’t necessarily a correct way to speak. Perhaps because the adults in their lives simply repeat their baby-talk back to them, thinking it cute. Other children had obviously discovered the truth and were in various stages of learning with their oblivious teachers. I can sympathize with these kids in their efforts to learn a language from a clueless adult.

I spent two years among the Kumboi people of Papua New Guinea. Most of that time was spent on linguistics and translation. I squatted for hours in the smoke filled cook-house in the center of our village practicing the words I learned and trying to pick up new ones. The villagers loved to hear me talk. It amused them to hear a grown person falter and slur words just like their toddlers. I encountered the same problem Joseph often does when my Kumboi friends failed to repeat the words I said correctly. Their first response was to say them the same poor way I had because it was funny.

Among my friends was a young married girl from one of the most remote and uncivilized villages in the region. She was often teased for forgetting to wear a shirt or comb the debris out of her hair in the morning. Natalin did not speak the trade language at all when I first came and was confined to the local tribal language alone. Natalin was my favorite language helper above all. She was a natural teacher. When I said a word incorrectly, Natalin did not think it was funny; she must have understood the frustration of not being able to communicate. Her response to me was always swift and loud. With perfect enunciation and tones, Natalin would repeat the desired word or phrase for me the way it should be said. Even today, seven years later, I can hear her voice ringing in my head. She would bob her head at me, directing me to keep repeating her until I said the phrase to her satisfaction. Next this unlearned, but brilliant teacher would pick up an object on the dirt floor and begin an instructive conversation in which I would have to use my new phrase correctly.

Natalin made me excited about learning a language. Her focus was never on my inabilities, but rather on the task at hand. I not only learned Kumboi from Natalin; I learned how to teach as well. Like every good mother, I tend to think my child is exceptional. I imagine him orating to thousands and awing them with his eloquence. But this week has been enlightening for me. I look at little children with different eyes - or I should say - I hear them with different ears!

Long before our children begin “school” they are developing a propensity to learn. If that desire to learn is thwarted or denied, it might whither and die. If it is cultivated and cared for, it will doubtless grow. I have often said that homeschooling is a way of life; a way of learning. Now I believe that teaching is a way of life as well.

Rebekah Joy Anast is the firstborn daughter of Michael and Debi Pearl and the wife of Gabriel Anast.
Rebakah has also written, Rebekah’s Diary, which is her daily account of her life as a 22 year-old homeschooled girl on a remote mountain in Papua New Guinea. It can be found by going back to homepage and then to the on-line store. It is a story that will thrill you and your older children. Homeschooling, child training and marriage articles, books, tapes and videos by the Pearls are also available on this web site.

Rebekah Anast

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One comment on “Beginning With Words”

  1. I would love to use this article for our little MOPS neslwetter. I think often as moms we do not thingk about linguistical structure, or anything beyond our own impatience and this article is a great reminder to take some time and really teach our kids the value and import of good communication.