I recently listened to a very moving podcast from Radiolab , titled “Words”. It is a story about a deaf man named, Ildefonso, a Mexican Indian, who lived in total isolation, set apart from the rest of the world. He wasn’t a political prisoner or a social recluse; he was simply born deaf and had never been taught even the most basic sign language.
Susan Schaller, who was a young community college teacher at the time, encountered Ildefonso , who was 27 years old , in the back of her classroom, where apparently he had spend many days of his life watching the world go by but not really engaging in it. As Susan wrote in her book: “Man without Words,” when she first met Ildefonso, she was puzzled. He seemed intelligent and keen to learn but as she discovered later, since he never learned sign language, or any language for that matter, he had no idea that people around him use words and sound to communicate with each other.
He saw people moving their lips and motioning, so that is what he tried to do as well. Susan gathered all her young exuberant energy trying to teach him vocabulary, but to no avail. When she pointed at a book and tried to mouth the word “book” to him or teach him the sign language word for a “book” , or open the book pretending to read, he will just imitated her like a mirror image, not knowing that she is in fact trying to communicate to him a symbol. It took an incredible amount of effort, determination, persistence and a sheer leap of faith, for Susan to crack open Ildefonso’s ability to internalize new concepts. After long teaching spell, when he finally got it, he exclaimed: “Oh, everything has a name” and just collapsed and started crying!
Susan and Ildefonso stayed in touch over the years. Later he was able to tell her that the period before he met her was the darkest time in his life. He added that learning language changed him and his thinking, that the world around him started to gather meaning and as he was able to “watch himself think” he was also able to imagine other people thoughts. As he internalized concepts like: “Later”, “Never”, “Happy,” “Angry”,” I wish”, “I feel sick”, “Yours”, “Mine” etc., his thinking became more complex and his communication more sophisticated.
The notion that expanding our vocabulary changes our perception both in regards to oneself as well as in regards to the world around us, is truly fascinating. In another example, a Linguist by the name of Richard Lewis, wrote in his book: “When Cultures Collide” that the language we speak influences the manner in which we understand reality and behave with respect to it. He adds that a higher level of thinking depends on language. We all conduct internal monologues, and the more developed our language, the more sophisticated our monologues.
He spend time in Africa with the Zulu people, whom he discovered have 39 different words to describe the color Green! Depending on the time of the day, the way the light shins on the leaves, whether it is wet outside or dry, whether it comes from the color of river or the crocodile, each variation will have its own word to describe what we in English simply call Green! For the Zulus, coming from a life in the bush, knowing their Greens is a matter of survival! After spending few weeks in the bush with a Zulu guide, Richard became acutely aware of the various shades of green and with great keenness tried to learn how to name them in Zulu, much to his guide’s amusement! As Richard later said, he felt his world expanded and his observation of his surrounding became more discerning just through this process.
So, if as scientists, claim language determines they way we see the world, what about Emotional Literacy? What can we learn about how we communicate with our kids so we can help them expand not only their general vocabulary, but more specifically their emotional vocabulary, so they become more sophisticated in the way they both understand their feeling as well as express them? We already know that kids, who have high EQ (Emotional Intelligence,) are good students, are better communicators, are more resilient and have more friends. As parents learn to become emotional coaches, the kids emotional vocabulary expands and just like we said before, they become more emotionally sophisticated both in regards to how they understand their own internal world as well as gain insight to the minds of others.
In our Listening Mothers and Reflecting Parenting groups we encourage parents to keep the emotional communication going. One way we suggest they can do it is to explore feelings through story telling. Kids love stories, and some of the day’s difficult moments can be looked at through a shared experience of creating a story about the particular event together with the kid, that way, feelings and behavior experienced earlier in the day, can be explored freshly in an unthreatening way.
Professor Pat Khul from the UW I Lab, was telling me that there is an astounding 30 million word gap between words heard by three year olds from welfare and those from professional families! This number comes from the data showing that welfare children heard, on average, 616 words per hour, while children from professional families (essentially children with college educated parents) heard 2153 words per hour! The longitudinal research in the following years demonstrated a high correlation between vocabulary size at age 3 and language test scores at age 9 in areas of vocabulary, listening and reading comprehension.
Imagine than the impact on the kids emotional development, if they get exposed to emotional communication? If they can articulate how they feel, are they mad, upset, disappointe, afraid, or hurt? Just as the Zulus have many words to describe Green and the Inuit have multiple words to describe Snow, which makes either Green or Snow for the perspective communities rich with meaning, so we can enrich the emotional communication and understanding by expanding the emotional vocabulary. Perhaps we do not need a million words to describe the various emotions, but a few hundreds or tens, will surely go along way! For parents and their kids who trek through life, knowing their emotions is a matter of survival!
For more information about our groups, go to: www.communityofmindfulparents.com
Photo by Lars Plougmann