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Language

( Originally Published 1899 )

SYMBOLISM makes language possible, the whole vocabulary of a people being a great system of symbols, each the repository, the representative of a thought from which it came and for which it speaks. As already stated, many of these words originated in an effort to imitate sounds made by animals or by bodies in motion; others are purely arbitrary forms agreed upon to represent ideas. Many words that originally belonged to the former class have become so modified by long usage that their source is not recognized save by those who make language an object of special study. Many words, at first used to express sensuous feelings and ideas only, through figurative use at last serve to express the highest emotions and thoughts of the human soul.

If children who have not learned to use language were left alone, they would easily invent a language of their own, though, of course, it would contain a limited range of words as compared with the vocabulary of their parents. The impulse to expression is characteristic of every child. He is not satisfied simply with expression, but strives to express himself in such a way as to be understood by others. No matter what kind of a sound he utters or what kind of a gesture he makes, if he finds himself understood by some one else he adopts that sound or gesture to express that same idea in the future. Every child has some words or gestures of his own manufacture which he finds profitable to use even after he has learned by imitation the words and gestures used by his associates.

A child at my table one day, when thirsty, uttered a sound resembling the caw of a tired crow, and the .mother, divining its want, gave it a drink. That peculiar sound served the same purpose for many months, until by imitation it began to use the word drink. A little friend called sugar " gogo " for a year or more before she at-tempted to say sugar. Another habitually ex-tended a finger toward any object he wished and closed it quickly, repeating the process with great rapidity until his wish was gratified. A little niece used the word bum for large, and as she learned the names of things long persisted in saying " bum-bed," " bum-apple," " bum-cat," etc. Even small children agree among themselves to call certain objects and actions by certain "made up" names. In many cases the children agree upon some prefix or suffix to attach uniformly to all words they use, and make a language which is often difficult for adults and strangers to under-stand. Dr. Oscar Chrisman has gathered a mass of interesting information concerning children's secret languages, which shows how fertile are their little brains in devising vocabularies of their own.

The utility of the language spoken by those about him is so easily seen by the child that as soon as he has picked up a few words he becomes as greedy for others as the Sylene Dragon did for children to swallow. He catches them up on every hand, putting them into immediate use with such intelligence and accuracy as to surprise every-body about him. He apprehends the meaning of hundreds of them intuitively, seldom asking for their definition. I have yet to discover the child that before attempting to read has asked for the meaning of the more common conjunctions, prepositions, interjections, demonstrative pronouns, and adjectives. The meaning of many of them readily reveals itself in their concrete association, but the slight hint even thus often given shows with what insight the child is already endowed. Few children learn words in a formal way, and yet at the age of six many of them have amassed a vocabulary of from fifteen to eighteen hundred words which they can use with fair accuracy. I know a healthy child two years of age that speaks but ten words, and yet Holden reports that his son spoke three hundred and ninety-seven words at the same age. Superintendent J. M. Greenwood reports a little girl of fifteen months using sixty words, and at two years of age using five hundred. The study of children's vocabularies is one of the most fascinating and instructive phases of our subject. The following conclusions may be verified in a few weeks of investigation:

1. That after children have learned a few dozen words they readily appropriate the new words they hear, recalling them as needed, without having made any apparent effort to remember them.

2. That children more readily understand and use such words as stand as symbols for the objects and activities with which they are surrounded, picking up relation words with similar ease.

3. That while children of the same age vary greatly in the number of words in their vocabularies, they seem to have a sufficient number to express their ideas, showing that their knowledge and vocabularies grow at approximately the same rate, and revealing also the function of language in knowledge-getting.

4. That children learn words used of objects or actions present much more readily than when they hear them read out of books or used in stories.

5. That almost without exception children who hear good English at home make few grammatical mistakes, but soon fall into grievous errors on associating with other children or with adults whose speech is faulty.

I have been surprised at the purity of the diction of some very small children. It was as chaste and appropriate as that of an Irving or a Gold-smith, there being no affectation nor stiffness, no high-sounding phrases nor cumbrous words about it. Years ago I made the acquaintance of two little boys who were talking like philosophers, using words of Latin and Greek origin with daring assurance. I discovered the explanation in the fact that their father was a man of few words, and that their mother used Anglo-Saxon only when some word of foreign extraction was not at hand. She encouraged the boys to go to the dictionary for words to use rather than to their associates. Both of them were slow thinkers and measured talkers. I recently met a boy of eleven in the mountains whose home had been there since childhood, and found him wonderfully versed in the geology of the locality, using technical terms with an ease that would give him a hearing in an academy of science.

As already remarked, children seldom lack for words to express their ideas. This is particularly true of children of from three to twelve years of age. The confusion and hesitancy of the youth is not generally found earlier in life. Children either tell what they know or frankly say they do not know. They may often be wrong in what they say, but if they think they know a thing they usually have a word for it. If these things be true, the cultivation of a child's language in these earlier years years in which we have been exalting senseperception needs to be given greater prominence than is now accorded it. Nearly one fourth of his life in the public schools is spent on grammar, and when that subject is finished he talks and writes with no more ease, comparatively speaking, than when he took up the study. Grammar is too often taught as a means of helping a child correct his language, whereas proper guidance in those years when he was learning language as naturally as he was learning to walk would have made all such work unnecessary.

It is a great error to suppose that the child learns to use words intelligently by imitation. He pronounces them by imitation, and uses them in a mechanical way as he has heard others use them; but unless their significance is apprehended, they are soon cast aside and forgotten. Words become a part of his mental furniture, his mental organ-ism, or they prove of little service. The child has no more use for words without meaning than he has for dolls without heads. Words have meaning only as they symbolize that which he knows. If the knowledge and the word are both born in the same experience, they are indissolubly bound together thereafter. They can not be forced upon the child without doing violence to his nature, making him constrained and artificial. This serves to indicate not only the way in which words become a part of the child, but also the classes of words which he should be expected to master. Experiment with several children and note their inability to cope with abstract terms, however small, and yet how quickly they appropriate large words if they but express a familiar idea or an idea which their past knowledge or capacity now enables them to comprehend. Difficulty in pronunciation may cause a child to avoid or discard a word, hence the simpler and more euphonious vernacular forms are better suited to him. Many words are understood by small children long be-fore they attempt to use them, as will easily be noted by any observer.

There comes a time in the child's life when words serve a greater purpose than merely to express or communicate ideas of things present.

They serve also as blocks by means of which a past experience is rebuilt or an imaginary one de-scribed. It is then that their symbolic value is more evident, for they now represent mental pictures instead of physical objects and activities. This new step in the use of language is fraught with weighty moment for the child. If with a few words he can recall the details of a past experience, locating it in time and space, he must also have taken a great step forward in mental activity. Test some of your younger children and see

(1) What proportion of them readily recall the details of some occurrences of the week before;

(2) Whether the children with the larger vocabularies are as active and accurate as the others.

Describe some interesting scene in your own life, and make similar tests. In both cases you will find that some children who do not lack words in describing what is present to the senses are surprisingly helpless in attempts to describe what they see in the mind as an image only. If possible, discover the cause. It may simply be lack of experience; it may be something else. Whatever it is, the need for intelligent, sympathetic guidance in the transition is clear enough. Words and mind must work in as close alliance here as in sense-perception.

As the child judges and reasons, his language must serve him another purpose. You have noticed how difficult it is to get many children to compare objects or pictures directly present be-fore them, particularly when the qualities are not very prominent or very clearly defined. When, however, the absent objects are held before the mind by means of their names only, the difficulty is multiplied many times over. Here words serve their highest function, and the success of the child in loading them up with meaning is prfoundly tested.

The transition from the use of words applied to individual objects to their use in designating "classes of objects or of activities is often easily made by children, and yet some of them accomplish it very slowly and very laboriously. The use of particles and of inflections to distinguish number and gender puzzles them seriously at times. Amusing mistakes of both kinds are frequently related of the children in every household at family reunions. The blunders in the use of synonyms and homonyms are exceedingly common among children who hear language a little above their comprehension, or who are required to commit passages to memory without under-standing their meaning. The following illustrate them: A little friend of mine was given the text, " The Son of man came into the world not to be ministered unto but to minister." She went off repeating it to herself, and returned in a few moments, surprising her monitor by saying, " The Son of man came not to be preachered unto but to preacher." "A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways " was, after a similar effort, announced as follows, " A double-minded man is in the stable all the time." Another little sprite in the same family who had heard " The Goblins" recited attempted it herself, and where the boy quickly dons his " roundabout " she assuringly asserted that he put on his " whereabouts." A study of these movements in the language of the child will not only prove interesting in themselves, but will be fruitful of suggestions in a pedagogical way.

The various transitions in the use of language already mentioned are more or less critical stages in the child's mental development, but the step by which he also grasps the words as eye pictures is no less critical. That a few straight lines and curves having no characteristic common with the objects they symbolize should have meaning as well as the spoken word is as much of a marvel to every child as it was to the Indians who held Captain John Smith prisoner. In these days of reading and writing, the learning of both by the children is taken as a matter of course by parents and teachers, but so much in their intellectual life is dependent upon the method by which it is accomplished that it becomes at once one of the greatest problems that confront the teacher. Our limitations prevent further discussion here, but we hope not further inquiry and study on the part of the reader.

On language as related to muscular control, see the latter part of the next chapter.

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