Scientists disagree on when language began and how it evolved. Language might have originated with the earliest grunts and gestures of our primate ancestors. It could have emerged when brain capacity and throat structure of homo sapiens finally allowed for distinct vocalizations representing thoughts. It is indisputable that words have the power to open doors to new worlds and build bridges between people. Scientific studies have recently shown that audible and face-to-face conversations increase endorphins and stimulate brain activity.
I am so thankful that I was born in the 1960s, when the only communication options were: face-to-face, telephone, handwritten letter, and typewritten letter. It was also an era when the importance of reading to young children and the benefits to their brain development were becoming publicly known. Mothers taking time to read to their children helped promote healthy social interaction. It was a time when knowledge was found in books, magazines, and the people we listened to—well before the existence of the internet, PCs, tablets, smart phones, social media … Technology is amazing, and I am well aware of the current benefits of it. But indulging in too much of anything always takes away from something else. Dependence on technology—and its encouragement to limit communication to texts composed of word fragments and emoticons; fun photos with brief, quippy captions; and tweets of 280 characters or less—threatens to diminish language and, consequently, society as we know it.
My mom has given me and my siblings, and all of our children, so many things over the years since she became a parent in the 1960s and a grandmother in the 1990s. I deeply appreciate her constant example of selfless generosity. What stands out as the best gift she has given me is an appreciation for language—spoken and written. When I was around three years old, Mom sat me down at the kitchen table and enthusiastically wrote on a piece of paper the letters that made up my name and told me that when those letters came together they represented who I was. Around that time, I was taking a bath and was looking at the yellow plastic bottle of Joy soap sitting on the tub. I shouted to Mom, “It’s a J! It’s a J for Julie!” Mom smiled and explained that it was a J and that it does make a “ja” sound, but it’s also a J for “joy: ja—oy.” A light bulb went on in my mind as I decided to share my letter with the soap, and I began to appreciate the building blocks of language. I eventually understood that everything in life—even a bottle of soap—could be defined by letters that are strung together into words, that are linked into sentences, which form paragraphs, that tell stories … I got the message from Mom that language is both necessary and fun.
Language seemed to dance from my mom’s mouth as I watched her have conversations with other people when I was young. I noted that she used language in a way that drew people to her because she used words that made them feel good. Words also danced off the pages when Mom read to me. Her voice was so lyrical and engaging that it lured me into worlds that existed behind the text. I was amazed that by speaking words, she had the power to transport me to places far beyond my everyday reality. I loved going through the stories, poems and articles found in our set of Childcraft with her. It was the set of “The How and Why Library” encyclopedias for children and, as a kid, I would have been happy to spend the rest of my life buried among those books. We had the 1970 version, and the green and white leatherette bound volumes were frequently visited by my inquisitive mind. Every time I opened the Childcraft volumes, a special scent drifted out that I still associate with knowledge.
As I learned to read, Mom took me on many trips to the bookmobile. It stopped at the small village a couple miles down the road from our house. She also frequently took me to the public library in town. Those literary trips were among the best of my childhood as I excitedly anticipated where I would be taken via the books that I chose. I had become passionate about experiencing new places and new ideas. Because of my mom, my mind was open to absorbing everything. She gave me the message that I had access to every bit of knowledge that existed by simply reaching for a book. With the understanding she gave me about the power of language, my mom gave me a passport to everywhere and the ability to take other people to the places that existed in my mind.
We’re well into the 21st century, and when I crave language, instead of reaching for my smartphone, I still prefer talking audibly to the people I care about. I spend my days stringing words together to create a new world within the novel I’m writing. Each night, I look forward to curling up on the couch with a book, made of pages that release the scent of knowledge. In choosing to spend my time this way, I don’t stay current on what all of my cyber “friends” have made for supper; the latest adorable video of their precocious children; or seeing photos of their “Best. Vacation. Ever.” But at least I’m not impeding the continued evolution of my species as I build meaningful connections with people; exercise my uniquely human larynx; and fully utilize my homo sapiens brain by skillfully using the tool of language.
I encourage everyone to resist abbreviating language via text or social media and, instead, pick up the phone and call the people you care about or visit with them in person. Let them hear how you’re feeling instead of making them decipher it from sentence fragments and smiley faces—or from your silence because you’re too consumed by technology to make the effort to communicate. Try surprising someone you care about by making the effort to write them a thoughtful note—with a pen, if you can find one. Let’s not take the gift of language for granted and risk losing the power that it holds for the human race. With language I am able to acknowledge that I would not be the writer and inquisitive person I am today without the beautiful gift that my mom gave to me. And with language I can express my appreciation: Thank you so much, Mom!
If you have a mom who taught you how to spell your name, read to you and gave you access to knowledge, you should also communicate your appreciation to her. In this era, meaningful language is becoming so rare that a mom will actually accept it in any format—and will surely express her gratitude.
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© 2018 by Julie Ryan. All rights reserved
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