The magical power of early language development

For Steve Eddison, his granddaughter's language-learning is both a repetitive game and a tribute to the power of words

Early language development

In the beginning was the cry. This was swiftly followed by the gurgle, the chuckle, the babble and the raspberry. After these came a number of other sounds that might or might not have been early attempts at words. When some of these at last became recognisable and were used in their proper context, we celebrated the fact that Gracie had discovered the miracle that is language.

Being born three months premature hasn’t held her back. Thanks to the skill and dedication of NHS staff working in Sheffield’s Special Care Baby Unit, she is now 21 months old (18 months age-adjusted) with an increasingly firm grasp of words and how to use them. This is especially true when it comes to ordering Grandad Steve about. 

Playing the three-word game

This morning we are playing a three-word game that goes like this.

Gracie picks up her doll and says “baby”. 

Then she removes the doll’s hat from its head and says “hat”.

Then she brings the hat and the doll to me and says, “Ganda…hat…baby." 

This is an instruction for me to put the hat back on the doll’s head.

Gracie then grins knowingly and repeats the entire process.

Because repetition is good for reinforcing learning (and because initially I’m finding our little game amusing), I play along with her. But by the time I’ve replaced the doll’s hat for the gazillionth time, I decide we ought to do something different. “I know, let’s play another game,” I say and pluck Woof-woof (a dog glove-puppet) from her toy box. 

But even when I stick my hand up Woof-woof’s bottom and impersonate a hyena grabbing Grandad by the throat and wrestling him to the ground, she is not impressed. “Ganda…hat…baby,” she insists. And when I begin to build her a big tower out of Lego Duplo, she insists even more firmly than before, “Ganda…hat…baby.” And before I can even suggest we read The Very Hungry Cater… “GANDA…HAT…BABY!”

A world built on words

I put the doll’s hat back on its head and reflect on the remarkable power of words. Gracie doesn’t know it yet, but without words we would still be living in caves, communicating by grunts and dining on whatever we could bash on the head with a big stick. Neither the special-care baby unit where she was born on a scary night in November 2017, nor the medical staff who delivered her safely into the world and fought to keep her here, could have existed without them.  

Because of words, Gracie will grow up to understand and navigate the world she lives in. Everything that exists, from the infinite smallness of the atom to the vastness of the universe, will be revealed to her through language, while the stories of Dickens, the plays of Shakespeare and the Twitter account of Donald Trump will help her to understand the complex nature of the human condition. 

In the meantime, to prevent an old man being distracted by old men’s thoughts, she will rely on those three little words, “GANDA…HAT…BABY!”

Steve Eddison is a teacher at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield 

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