Monday, May 14, 2007

"Will that fit in my mouth?"

I’ve heard it said that the only thing running through the mind of a six-month-old is “will that fit in my mouth.” That would suggest that a child’s first synoptic connections are made up of a series of yes or no responses to stimuli: “finger—yes, hand—no; toes—yes, foot—no; rattle—yes, ball—no; spoon—yes, spatula—no; stuffed animal—yes, real dog—no.” Of course it can’t be that simple, but it does beg the question, why do babies put everything into their mouths? As a six-month-old himself, my youngest boy, Nolan, couldn’t care less whether a toy shakes, squeaks, or sings, as long as at least part of it fits inside his mouth. Tonight I sat him next to our dog, Shelby, so he could run his fingers through her fur. Let’s just say the fingers weren’t enough. I finally picked him up after trying unsuccessfully to keep him from attempting to fit the dog into his mouth.

Perhaps the more intriguing question lies in the reality that NO phrase is running through my son’s mind when he tries to put my tie, his foot, a napkin, the dog, his shirt sleeve into his mouth—no question, no curiosity that can be labeled linguistically—because he has no language. Without the development of language he doesn’t speak to himself internally as I am doing now as I type this entry. He works on a completely different cognitive approach, one you and I once experienced, but have long forgotten. Certainly we knew the sensation of curiosity, and somehow we internalized the information, but it wasn’t with language, certainly not how we do it now. What goes through his mind as he brings a plastic spoon or a piece of paper to his mouth? What pure curiosity, disentangled from language, drives his mouthing everything?

It makes sense that I cannot find words to describe what words were never meant to describe. Like a fish trying to describe water, or you and me trying to describe air, a baby only knows the world as it registers on a tactile, physical, emotional, level that I cannot comprehend, because I have language. I doubt the ability is gone; rather it has been so covered, intermingled, and tied to language that I can’t separate them anymore. Language lies on the reflex spectrum somewhere between breathing, which we can only momentarily stop, and beating our heart, an action so reflexive that it has no transitive verb form that doesn’t sound funny. The epitome of behavioral development, language becomes some such an intrinsic part of who we are and how we see the world that we can’t help but use it. Try staring at this page and only see shapes. Can’t do it, can you? Okay, how about just disorganized letters? Not a chance. Even words we do not know appear familiar and our mind tries desperately to read them. In bizarre linguistic anthropomorphism, we try to attach our own preconceived notions of grammar to the foreign language, notions that were conceived in our infancy, notions that lead the typical American to pronounce karaoke “Carry-o-key,” instead of the Japanese pronunciation Ka-ra-oh-ke. Then language must be partially responsible for the gradual discontinuance of mouthing. We have learned to experience our world through language long enough, have built enough internal connections, relations, and associations, all attached to language, that we no longer need to bring a credit card ad to our mouth to experience it, we have an entire archive of language and symbols with which to interpret it and all the other junk mail that comes in the box. There is no novelty in texture, no thrill in new flavor, no excitement in sound—just more junk mail, and we toss it in the garbage, glad to be rid of it.

And the processes that Nolan experiences—where will they go? Where are they going? Language has already begun its slow, inevitable dominance of his brain. The inexplicable joy he experiences inserting a teething biscuit into his mouth never expresses itself in language, but he still manages to express it. But someday, language will assume control of everything, and he will forever be doomed to reliance on language, a construct of our collective minds, designed to translate those first sensations into extractable, transmittable bits of information, that only begin to describe metaphorically what we each experience individually, separately, that we can never fully express to anyone.

1 comment:

Brandon said...

I like this entry Joey. Very nice!!