x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Dad matters: Frustration of simply trying to be understood

A father dealing with the difficulties and frustrations of a child's attempts simply to communicate.

Red-faced and quaking, repeating a piercing monosyllabic cry, Astrid battles to be understood. The struggle pervades her entire body. She points and yells. Her voice crescendoes. Her face turns scarlet. I pick up various objects from the table and, by a process of deduction, work out that she would like some more bread. There is silence, relief and contentment - for a few seconds at least.  This episode is just one of scores of daily skirmishes on the front line of learning a language. It's an interesting process, which we've all been through. I'm taken aback by the sheer physicality of her frustration, the urgency of her need to be understood, the desperation of the desire to get her message across.  

When you think about it though, her exasperation is understandable. After all, she can understand a lot of what I say to her. "Can you point to the giraffe? ... Can you fetch your shoes please?" She answers these questions and many others with the correct actions, implying a range of vocabulary and depth of understanding. Yet even allowing for nuances of tone and accompanying gestures and context, Astrid's argot can often remain impenetrable.

Expressive language always lags behind receptive language. We must understand a word before we can use it. We must internalise it before we can cast it back out as an expression of our own thoughts or feelings. This process of learning your native language would be daunting if we knew what we were getting into.  In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, David Crystal estimates there are at least one million words in the English language. This figure doubles if scientific terms are included in the total.

Estimates of the average size of a person's vocabulary range from about 10,000 to 20,000 words depending on their education. Shakespeare, no slouch when it came to diction, is often quoted as having a vocabulary of about 25,000 words.  Such figures are complicated by disputes over what exactly counts as a word. Debates rage between lexicographers about whether to include all the forms of a verb, plurals of nouns, compound nouns, proper names and myriad other variations that make up the language.

Nevertheless, one thing is clear: the number of words that the majority of people use to communicate day to day is a scant selection of the vast and ever-expanding pool whose associations shift subtly and often change completely from year to year.   We tend to think that when somebody can speak their native language fluently, they have learnt the language. We consider the process of learning is finite. In truth, it is neverending. The enormity of the task is most noticeable at the beginning when there are hardly any words at all.   

*** Astrid gets into more scrapes than a street cat. Her face is seldom without a gash or bump. More often than not, one of her arms or legs has at least one big black bruise on it.  Of course, we try to protect her, but it is more difficult than you might think. Her daily adventures are manifold. They range from clambering on tables and chairs to balancing on the trailer of her toy tractor and setting it going. Even without such assorted high jinx, she falls over a lot just walking along and frequently misjudges doors so she bumps into the jamb.

At first, I followed her around on tenterhooks. I tried to stop her from falling over and attempted to guide her from hazards. But then I realised it was futile. I've learned to relax. Minor injuries during childhood are almost as inevitable as growing up.