Dialectical Toddlerisms

This one’s a reminiscence about early words, leading into a loose comparison of how academic discourse is learned and the development of language pragmatics in the preschooler. It ends with a shrug.

Somewhere there is a piece of paper with a collection of words our daughter spoke by the time she was about 9 months old (I’ll scan that when I locate it). I recall her first attempt to form a word (apart from babbling) was at around 6-7 months old, and the word was “kitty”, but it came out more like “kit-key”. Soon thereafter came the expected “mum”, “dad”, and “baba”. Then came some invented words (I suppose her mum and I are also partly culpable for their habitual utterance), like “nonny” (for nursing), and “cozy” (for blanket, sometimes shortened to just “co”, which is still in use, actually). I think as she began to ingest a wider variety of things, her vocabulary evolved in step, because then came “juice”, “potu” (meaning “tofu”), “yogurt” (at times phrased as “bogurt”), and, by the time of her first birthday (she was born in June, so this one’s seasonally timed), “boo boos” (blueberries), and so on.

This formative development in the ordering of things (um…Foucault) had nothing on the evolving structure of our interactions (um…Plato), though.

Formal structures in our verbal interactions started to take shape by about 12-13 months, alongside the evolution of “mum” into “mummy, “dad” into “daddy”, and an understanding of colours and their corresponding words. Early on, the formal structure was essentially parroting everything we said (often while reading books). But the most important turning point came a bit later, at around 18-19 months, when she started repeating our utterances back to us as questions (interestingly, the question-answer format is strong with this one…so strong it’s still impossible to say much of anything without it being turned into a question and thrown back at us). I would say, “The dog went to the store,” to which she would reply, “why did the dog go to the store?” I would say, “it’s time to get going now,” to which she would reply “why did daddy say that?” (this latter exchange in particular is indicative of a strong emotional response, when something has been uttered which is not to her liking. or when I have raised my voice).

As recently as her second birthday, she developed a new dialectical approach to conversing: the contradiction. This has proven the most lasting and irritating legacy of her intellectual development thus far. It’s like Socratic dialogues all the time now. I say, “it’s raining,” to which she smirkingly replies, “it’s not! it’s sunny!” (we have this same exchange every morning). I say, “Uh-oh I forgot my gloves,” to which she smirkingly replies, “Uh-oh you didn’t forget my gloves!”. I say, “Which cat do you like? the grey one or the orange one?”, to which she replies, “the grey one…which one do you like?” If I then reply, “I like the grey one too,” she’ll get agitated and say “no, I like the grey one. You don’t like the grey one!” These often escalate into fits of laughter (though sometimes they end in real arguments).

And people wonder why I seem tired all the time.

Interestingly, the arc in her “pragmatics” development (in linguists’ terminology) traced above reads as follows: parroting -> questioning -> contradicting. Is this arc echoed in the longer education process we go through in academic training? Mimicry/parroting/[eek! plagiarism] -> questioning truth claims -> forming our own opinions/writing/speaking/publishing?

I’m a scholar-in-training, in the social sciences. We try our best to “look before we leap” in scholarship – to book up on absolutely everything available on a topic before we say/write/publish anything. This is just common sense. My 11th grade Creative Writing teacher, similarly, instructed us to “read 10 pages for every one page you write.” The arc makes sense in this regard – much like in the case of certain historical schools of painting wherein students would paint replicas of classics before moving on to creating original works, consistent also with the informal learning structures used in mid-20th century rock music circles, whereby bands (even the Beatles et al) would play covers first, then moving on later to original compositions. We parrot what we read (usually just in private notes we take) to learn the vocabulary and pragmatics of discourse in the field of study first. Then we start questioning truth claims by turning statements back into questions. Finally, we’re permitted (or feel sufficiently secure) to form and express our own views, which somehow get teased out of this experience of interrogation. Typically, we contradict someone in the process, knowingly.

Saying all this (and despite this being a blog where I get to say whatever I want, to an audience that – hopefully – is much more forgiving than an academic one), I now feel a knee-jerk, creeping sense of hypocrisy, by not linking to prior texts in developmental psychology, linguistics, popular music studies, the Ancients, paint schools, and other drek I’ve dredged up here today. I feel a bit of a fraud. Then again, most of the discourse in the world is sophistic and unreferenced, adrift in a sea of dreams and persuasion…

Hopefully my daughter doesn’t feel like a fraud when she contradicts me. She certainly laughs it up at my expense when she does. I hope she finds more sophisticated ways to make me a figure of fun in the years to come. According to some developmental psychologists, they learn how to subtly steer conversation topics to their liking by the time they reach age 6 or 7.

I will be on the lookout for this phenomenon, and I will blog it when I find it.


    1. Thanks, Roland! 🙂 Supposedly WordPress 3.1 makes it easier to manage links to older posts in the same blog (but I haven’t upgraded yet).

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