English is my native language — and, until the birth of my son, I thought I spoke it pretty well. I majored in English in college, and even went to graduate school for Literature. I began reading to Baby as soon as I knew he was in there.
At 2, my son’s favorite question is “what’s that?” Of course, I’m overjoyed about his curiosity. “That’s a shadow,” I’ll sing. “That’s a cat, that’s a sock, that’s the milk you asked me to pour. That’s a fence, that’s our neighbor, that’s a vacuum cleaner.” I do what I can to demystify his world, to boost his vocabulary, and to show him that questions rock!
Lately, though, I’ve begun to doubt my language abilities, and wonder whether I might not be nearly as fluent as I once imagined. In short, I’m often at a loss for words. What’s the name for the metal thing that separates two storefronts? (I went with “metal thing that separates two storefronts.”) What do you call the apparatus on the dock around which you wind the rope that holds the boat? (I suggested “rope wrap.”) What’s the thing that holds up the other thing on what I think is a bulldozer? (Your guess is probably better than mine, which was “thing.”)
Walking down the hallway in our apartment building recently, our toddler pointed to the ceiling and uttered his familiar query. As I answered “lintel,” my husband said “archway.” We then entered into a 10-minute-long debate about the difference between an archway and a lintel. (I should mention that my husband also has multiple degrees in English.) Our son, meanwhile, wandered over to a window to watch traffic.
When I was pregnant, I imagined sharing my interests — naps, candy, travel — with my baby, and I fervently hoped that he’d one day share his with me. He could talk about ways to use his pawns to combat the Ruy Lopez, for example, while I rested quietly with my eyes closed. I just didn’t expect that his interests would come on so early, or so completely showcase my ignorance.
Take boats, which Baby loves. We might live on the island of Manhattan, but I don’t know my aft from my bow. My nautical vocabulary is nil. When we wander along the Hudson River, I find myself making up words, à la Lewis Carroll: “Oh, that?” I’ll say. “That’s a hingeamabore, used to help the boat stay afloat. And that’s a clampadlerm, which holds the anchor, and that helps keep the ship in place.” Baby seems satisfied enough.
Until we get to a construction site. I can identify a forklift, sure, as well as a dump truck, a crane, and a cement mixer. But a Fresno scraper? An excavator? The big yellow machine with the scoop in the front and the plow in the back? I’m totally lost.
So I do what I’ve done so many times before, and turn to books. Thank you, Richard Scarry. I love you, Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld. You rule, Sally Sutton. Because of you, I can now talk at length about booms, scoops, and axles. Parents marvel at how their hearts expand with love for their children in ways they never thought possible. I’m happy to report that the brain expands too.
Approximately one million years ago, I gave my husband The DK Ultimate Visual Dictionary. It features now-quaint images of handheld computers and high-speed trains, along with tons of cars, rockets, and planes. A truly romantic gift, I know. Our son likes to open it and ogle objects at random, often naming things to himself. Other times he looks to me for help, waiting patiently as I bring the book up to my nose and squint at the tiny print. “That’s an upper rubber anti-vibration engine mount. Please don’t ask me to explain what it does.”