In the Beginning was the Dialog

Yulia OnosovskayaUncategorized

What’s your first memory? I bet your answer to this question would be something like “It was when… ” In any case you would use words to recall and describe your first memory. Most of our thoughts are shaped in words, but it hasn’t always been like that. Even the concept of “question and answer” is something we are not born with, and really this is the first thing about communication we learn.

At the age of about 2 months children discover their ability to vocalize and search for social interaction. At that point the main interlocutor, usually the mother, teaches her baby the principles of a dialog – and it is then when a child finds out that communication is based on a back and forth “tit for tat”. There is an opinion that women are generally better at this game – meaning that men are more comfortable with leaving a “tit” without a “tat”, - and this can be connected with women’s designed role: a first Art of Dialog teacher for their kids!

Interestingly, the principle of a dialog is a communication concept that lots of animals share with humans.

In the period between 3 and 5 months children produce sounds known as cooing. The primary mechanism babies have for learning a language is an instinct to imitate, but in the early stages of development, babies imitate emotion, not sounds. That’s why live, emotional and individual communication is crucial. Adults’ intonation works as a trigger to react and imitate. A recorded voice could even be a negative for developing imitation skills because there is no actual interaction linked to the concept of conversation.

At the same stage babies recognize the elements of dialog as such and learn to start or end a conversation on their own initiative, but the sounds themselves have nothing in common with adult speech just yet. At this age, children experiment with their vocal apparatus and can occasionally produce any sound, independently from whether such sound exists in their native language or not.

At the age of about 5 months, although every child follows his or her individual schedule, children enter a period of so-called “babbling” when they try to imitate adults’ way of speaking. Towards the end of the first year some syllables, usually repeated (like ma-ma, da-da, wa-wa) appear. This indicates development of understanding of language units, although until about 1 year children embed the meaning within intonation and rhythm rather than in sounds. That’s why sometimes they create words, that for them seem similar to adult’s language, but really have almost nothing in common with the original words. Only the context helps parents to understand their kids “own” language. After 1 year children create some “signal” monosyllabic words, indicating the whole situation.

Curios thing: there are relatively few languages in the world, in which “mom” does not start with “ma” or “am”. There is no certain answer why, but one hypothesis is that the labial sound “m” is the one most easily made when taking breast milk. Unsurprisingly it’s often the first sound a child learns and uses to describe a concept/situation.

When starting to develop actual speech children “lose” the sounds and words they created during the babbling period. It looks almost like they are learning the sounds once again, this time connecting them to the meaning they have in their native language. So quasi-languages are replaced with understanding and pronouncing verbal forms, which then become statements with communicative content. From then (between 1 1/2 – 2 years) children learn to verbally break down the situation, and slowly their sentences become longer. At this point the language learning process is a little similar to the process of learning a foreign language: learning new words, words’ structure and grammar, consciously working on sounds. In English phonetics, children perfect the most difficult sounds, “r” and “th”, only at about 6 years old.

This last fact is used in some of today’s foreign language learning methods, which, oppositely to academic methods, leave phonetics studies for last, or at least don’t start from learning to enunciate perfectly before understanding a single word.

As adults, we can’t imagine even thinking without using words of our native language. And yet, it is just a tool humanity, and each one of us, once acquired to communicate with others, - the tool, that then structured our minds in a way to become an intrinsic part of being a human.