I Love Watching Kids Learn to Talk

My daughter is obsessed with making slime. She has been for more than a year now. After making dozens (hundreds?) of batches, she’s become pretty good at it. She throws together a batch of slime the way a seasoned chef might prepare a meal, albeit with different ingredients: a bit of baking soda, a splash of saline solution, just a touch of Elmer’s glue. Voila! It’s slime perfection.

As I cleaned the kitchen last night, she decided to make some slime. She knows she has to clean up after herself, and she does a good job, so it’s no big deal. “I’m going to make this purple,” she said, as she added a few drops of blue coloring to the pure white concoction.

She kneaded and folded and swirled and pulled until she’d created something so smooth and shiny that she could have put it in a plastic container and sold it at the checkout lane for $7.99.

“I’m going to add some sand,” she said after she was done. “Now some fake snow.” She worked for another fifteen minutes, unsure how the sand and snow would affect the slime. After she worked it in, she asked me to watch as she held it out in front of her and pulled it apart.

As soon as she yanked the slime into two pieces, an avalanche of sand cascaded to the floor. She looked up at me, eyes wide, hands still in front of her, and said, “I’ll go get the broom.”

She put down the slime, got the broom, and started cleaning. But after a few seconds she put down the broom and said, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to broom it all up. I’ll use wipes instead.”

Broom it all up? Doesn’t she mean sweep?

Of course she does, but I kept my mouth shut. Hearing my smart, confident, eight-year-old daughter use the wrong word tugged at my heart.

I love watching kids learn how to talk. It’s such a long process of discovery and accomplishment, a step toward becoming a functioning, independent person in society. But is there anything sweeter than a kid who’s using a word that’s not quite right, or saying a word in his or her own unique way?

These lingual missteps remain some of my favorite memories from watching my kids grow. And the fact that my daughter is eight and still learning is just fantastic.

A couple of years ago I beamed with pride when she expressed disgust that someone had left a “smoker” on the ground. Yes, I was happy that we’d made it clear to her that smoking is a disgusting, unhealthy habit, but at that moment I was most happy that she had to invent her own word for cigarette!

All kids have their own unique way of speaking as they learn English. (I suspect these sorts of things happen in other languages, too, but other than a smattering of Espanol, I’m stuck speaking and understanding English only.)

Seventeen years ago my older daughter used the word hangaburder. At some point – perhaps without us even noticing when it happened – she switched to hamburger. (Someone might want to check with the Oval Office to ensure they’re aware that hamberders don’t exist.)

One of my sons pronounced the letter L like a Y for a long time, which meant he’d say things like, “I yike ice cream” or “I yove you.” We were in no hurry to correct him. He’s twelve now, and has developed his own interests, and somewhere along the line he figured out how to say the letter L. So you’ll never hear him say, “I hope the Brewers yose today.”

I have the good fortune to spend a lot of time around a two-year-old who’s learning to talk. Every time he says, “I can’t want to do that,” I breathe a sigh of relief. He’ll learn soon enough. For now, I’d rather bask in the innocence of a kid who doesn’t know the difference between can’t and don’t!

At some point these speaking mistakes will lose their loveliness. I cringed every time I heard a particular Chicago radio DJ say the word biopic so that it rhymed with myopic, rather than the correct pronunciation, bio-pic.

But I’m not sure of the cutoff. I still delight that there’s practically zero chance that my older daughter will say the word seashell as it should be pronounced, rather than sheshell.

I think if she’s still having trouble when she reaches thirty, I’ll give her a hand.

There’s just nothing like the expressive purity of a child learning to use this language we take for granted. They grow out of it simply by talking and listening. Only when I look back at old videos do I realize how much my kids’ speech changes year-to-year. R sounds become more R and less W. S sounds become more teeth and less tongue. Other changes I can’t even describe take root.

Then I become nostalgic for how they used to talk even though I hadn’t realized their speech had changed.

But if they’re anything like me, they’ll never get rid of a peculiarity or two. I have to pause and repeat every time I say the word roar. Whose idea was it to put two R’s so close together?

I wish someone would have broomed away one of those R’s.

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