The other day I was folding some laundry in the bedroom when K stomped in and asked me:
"Daddy, you help Kieran find the dragon's eye?"
How epic of a sentence is that? It's something a dying holy man would ask Indiana Jones. So of course, rugged swashbuckling adventurer that I am, this was my response,
"Help Kieran find what?"
Having a first-row seat to a person learning how to navigate a language is more entertaining than I ever imagined.
Actually, that's a lie. There was no frame of reference, so I never really imagined what it would be like.
So I don't know what my conception of a kid learning how to talk entailed. All I knew the first two nephew's and niece was that they'd know some words, a stretch of time would pass where I wouldn't see them, and when I got to hang around with them again they'd picked up some more vocabulary.
(Now that I'm looking back, my godson Joey was pretty advanced for his age. "Hey John! Hey Sarah! Come see my Nemo bed!" And he was, what, under two? My boy is wicked smart, dude.)
From casual observation, language comes in fits and starts. It is not a gradual process. The kid will enter a phase, remain there for a while, then jump to the next without warning.
The kid ingests a word or phrase so many times, when there's no more for it inside his head, he starts spitting it out.
Is this process is kid-specific? Were I dropped in the middle of Tokyo, Santiago or Paris and made to learn through immersion (as children do), would my path to fluency mirror a child's by beginning with a word or two before moving on to simple phrases, then after a while primitive sentences, and so on until at some undetermined moment I realize the native language of my brain has been replaced. If experienced as an adult, are you aware of the moment you become fluent? How do you know when it happens? Is fluency determined by the language of your dreams? Allow me to digress a bit:
How much of learning a language is a process that occurs in the unconscious? Dreams, and the wider notion of the subconscious, have occupied my thought a lot lately. Reading a few articles and watching a few documentaries, an image has taken shape, a vision as a tool of understanding the nature of how we learn: the conscious mind is like the continents, what we can see and feel, the plane on which we assume the gears of life turn. But like the continents are dwarfed by the oceans and atmosphere, as the conscious is by the subconscious, where the true work of existence takes place. As life crept to shore from the ocean, so does our awareness crawl, slowly, from the dream state into which we are born. To what extent does personality, aptitude, attraction, language, mathematics, and art actually form in the murky tidal waves always crashing beneath the surface our waking selves? How much of me is the product of my unconscious? How much of you?
Anyway, after donning my imaginary snap brim fedora and bull-whip, I found the dragon's eye under a couch. When I showed him, K shouted:
"You did it! You found the dragon's eye!"
Which is quite possibly the coolest thing anyone has ever said to me.
And so, the dragon's eye was returned, and the great beast was whole again, free to wander the water and the sky, to become as small as a silkworm or as large as the universe, to dream into reality the world of mortals. Behold:
(Yeah, he got this when uncle Adam took him to visit Kristen while she was photographing the Asian Festival at North Quincy High School. The tongue fell off, but still fearsome and mighty, huh? At least it has both eyes.)