Last year I’d visited a friend of mine whose children are unschooled. Since I and my wife were also considering homeschooling our son, my conversation with him naturally gravitated towards the whole concept of learning without school. My friend narrated a story of a psychologist who had recorded all the sounds his kid had uttered, from infancy to the time the kid was making conversations. And it seems the psychologist had discovered that every sound the kid had uttered during infancy was geared toward eventual verbal communication. I nodded. I didn’t really understand what it meant, I just had a vague intellectual understanding of it.
My kid was just about an year old then and was already uttering incoherent sounds. One day he learnt to produce a specific sound that sounded like ‘yenthi‘. I understood it was meant to be ‘Enti‘ which is Telugu for ‘What?’. There was also a gesture he would make with his hand whenever he would utter yenthi. It looked like a gesture of enquiry with his hand at his chest, pointing away from him, the palm facing upwards, the fingers slightly curled and later he added the gesture of moving the hand up and down or, sometimes, sideways. I noticed that he used the word whenever he wanted to know what something was.
Gradually I also noticed that he used the same word and gesture to ask the whereabouts of people. Like he would say, “Ama yenthi” with the accompanying hand gesture which meant ‘Where is mother?’. So he was using the same sound for two different purposes. Finally I realized that he was also using yenthi and the hand gesture as a way of asking any question or to make any enquiry. So yenthi was his ‘why’, ‘where’, ‘what’, ‘how’, and also the demand for an explanation. He never used it for ‘when’ because he still probably wasn’t familiar with the concept of time by then.
So yenthi was his mode of enquiry. When he wanted answers from us, he used yenthi and the hand gesture. Sometimes he also used it as a conversation starter, which I found in a lot of other children of varying ages – especially as a means of expressing interest or desire in a toy or food or other curiosity, they would come and ask me, “What is this, uncle?” even though they know what is it that they were pointing at.
But an even more astonishing discovery for me came a few weeks later. I’m used to listening to music everyday and even though our son listens to the music that I hear, we used to play songs particularly for him too. Some of them were the standard rhymes and children’s songs in English or Telugu. One day I found him singing a familiar tune. I was a bit away from him, lying on the floor half asleep. In that alpha – or theta – state of mind, I was stunned to hear him clearly sing the lyrics of the song. I became wide awake and crawled up to him. I immediately noticed that he wasn’t singing the exact words but was reproducing sounds closest to the lyrics as much as he could. It was a double revelation for me. First, in my deeply relaxed state of mind, I was hearing perfect lyrics coming from his mouth. Second, he was actually singing the sounds closest to what he has heard.
When I heard first my son sing I was in a deeply relaxed state of mind (scientifically an alpha or a theta state of mind). And that helped me recognize the broader patterns in my son’s singing and recognize them as lyrics of the song. If I was in any different state of mind, I probably would have thought of the sounds as gibberish. The mind then ‘filled in’ the details of the lyrics in my head – provided the missing pieces of the sounds. So when I became wide awake I was able to recognize the patterns still even though they were incoherent utterances on the outside. My son was singing the most primitive version of the sounds. And in his mind, they probably were perfect lyrics, at least for a while. Also his listening worked in a way how peripheral vision works. Quietly observing and filing away without being too conscious about it.
Think of it as a heavily unfocused version of a photograph. You can barely make out what the subject of the photograph is but it is still the photograph of that subject. I started understanding how my son was learning stuff and became keenly interested in it.
Slowly I noticed that he was using simple words to convey full sentences, just like his yenthi earlier. At this point I was tempted to ‘correct’ his speech and teach him more vocabulary. I even did that a few times as any concerned/excited parent would. I found it to be a frustrating exercise both for him and me and I quickly dropped it. In fact, he picked up more vocabulary whenever he was not directly participating in a conversation or when we were not trying to teach him language deliberately. He also learnt in cycles but more about that in a later post.
The need to communicate and participate in ‘adult conversations’ was driving him, I think, to learn more and speak more. I understood that his approach to learning pretty much anything worked like the blurred out photograph example. He was learning the most visible or the most impacting pattern or form (like an outline or silhouette to put it crudely) of anything and eventually filling out the details in the weeks or months following that.
The incoherent communication the child was making was language in its rawest form and each sound represented a whole concept or narrative!
For instance, if we explained something at length to him, and if he would listen fully, he would keep quiet for a while and then summarize my whole communication into a single word (or two at the most) and say it back to us as if in confirmation. And then he’d use that word to mean the whole concept that we had explained earlier. Much later he’d pick up more words and meanings to expand upon the subject. Or for instance, he became a big fan of batman and quickly learnt the color combination of the superhero and also the outline of the batman logo and he would then recognize it anywhere.
I immediately resonated with this pattern of learning of his. Because it was very familiar to me. Back in school, I had noticed that while many students learned stuff faster than me through rote memorization or whatever methods they were employing to gain marks, I had a different pattern of learning. When I first learnt of a new concept, I’d only grasp the rawest outline of it. Then I’d have to break away from learning anymore otherwise the concept would become too overwhelming to me. And when I visit that concept again after a few weeks, the earlier familiarity with it would make it easy to now grasp further details and eventually with similar revisits I’d fully absorb the material. But unfortunately, schools are unforgiving when it comes to time, and I misinterpreted my learning approach as a defect in myself.
So I could now understand how my son was naturally learning. Slowly I recognized that nearly all the barely-coherent communication he was making was language in its rawest sound form and that each sound did not represent a single word but a larger narrative. He was trying to tell stories in simple syllables!
Neither are the communication components readily recognizable nor is the narrative alterable. ‘B’ has to come after ‘A’ and there’s no lenience allowed.
And this natural learning of his is the exact opposite to how most schools approach teaching. While my son was grasping narratives as outlines and was verbally telling stories with simple words, many schools come in the opposite direction. They break down all communication into language and language into its smallest components and then ask the children to grasp an entirely abstract alphabet first. And even here, the child is not given the time to play with the shapes or sounds of the alphabet. They are almost immediately ‘corrected’ into the standard systems. Every upturned ‘A’ shape is turned around. Every ‘thee’ sound is corrected to ‘t’. So out goes communication and in comes an abstract and meaningless language.
Even if the components presented by the teacher were recognizable to the child as a part of a whole, the child could be engaged in building its own narratives. But neither are the components readily recognizable nor are the narratives alterable. ‘B’ has to come after ‘A’ and there’s no lenience allowed. The alphabet has an unalterable order to it making it absolutely meaningless to the learner, sometimes for many years after leaving school. How many of us adults silently muttered “L, M, N, O, P” in our heads to find if P came before or after L in a dictionary! Fortunately, dictionary apps saved us that internal shame!
In the meanwhile, left to his own devices my son’s speech became more coherent and the vocabulary increased. He was probably frustrated by the fact that we bewildered adults couldn’t always grasp the finer details of his narrative that his single sound communication was attempting to establish! His natural listening and observation came to his rescue there. Like a photographer adjusting the focus ring of his lens so the now-familiar outlines of the subject turned into a slightly more detailed picture, he grasped a few more finer details of the world, the sounds that represented them, and started forming rough-hewn sentences.
The greatest takeaway for me was the uneasy realization that I carry this deeply ingrained instinct to school him. To tell him what is wrong and right, to correct him until he ‘learns it right’, to stop his curiosity to prevent ‘accidents’, to ‘sanitize’ his environment, to teach him manners (sit straight, eat with your right hand, say ‘namaste’, ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’), to shout at him or to assume his mischievous intent without reason. And the way sometimes it leaks out. I find the need to be self-aware more than ever!