I still think about my favorite commercial all the time. I was hanging out in some friends’ apartment — they were probably watching “Jeopardy” or something when I arrived — and during the break, a statewide ad came on, encouraging parents to talk, sing, read and play with their children because they need to hear millions of words by the age of five in order to succeed in school.
Another time, after a conversation with someone who “hates” reading, I remember asking my dad how I could make sure that my kids would love to read. He told me that you have to read to them from the time they’re tiny babies in the crib, and then you’ll have no problems.
Reflecting on this later, I realized that the language acquisition process is sort of like my experience learning to drive. I never went to driver’s ed, nor did I take driving lessons. My dad pulled over on the way home from the DMV and made me get in the driver’s seat for the last mile. I was so nervous that I forgot to put on my seat belt, and I braked so hard at the stop sign that the line of drivers following me probably still remembers it. My parents never sat down with me at the kitchen table to go over a list of rules and road signs. They just made me drive and pointed out guidelines as they became relevant — I didn’t learn how to drive in the snow in May.
My mom didn’t teach me the word “plethora” until I needed help with a fourth-grade project about Oregon history. It probably wasn’t the first time I’d ever heard it in my decade of life, but I’ve never forgotten it since (and I now avoid it because it seems to be desperately overused in certain contexts).
Once, when I was working on a writing project in second grade, my mom said, “My dad always taught me that there is always a better word than ‘get’ or ‘got.’ ” I still try to live by that rule, 14 years later (with reasonable exceptions).
My dad, having returned to college to earn his master’s degree in English when I was in middle school, frequently shared what he was learning in class. Once, his professor taught that because the purpose of language is to communicate, there’s no such thing as “incorrect” grammar if the language gets its point across.
My parents don’t remember all of these moments, but I do.
Language acquisition happens as life happens — whether it’s your first, second or seventh language, everyone knows that the only way to truly learn it is to be immersed. And thanks to my parents, I was veritably swimming in language before I could even crawl or talk.
My mom gave me her favorite childhood series, “Little House on the Prairie,” when I was in preschool, so I had to read the books again in third grade to fully remember Laura’s stories.
When I told my dad that his Shakespeare reading looked impossible to understand, he sat on my bed with me every night to read “King Lear,” pausing for footnotes, until we had finished. Then we started “Romeo and Juliet.”
Other times, my mom came into my room at night to read “Anne of Green Gables” aloud, even when my friend Brittan was sleeping over on my trundle bed, so we could catch up on the latest about Gilbert Blythe.
My dad told me he’ll never be fluent in English, because there will always be thousands of new words to learn.
So thanks, Mom and Dad, for filling my life with language from my first moments on Earth. Thanks for taking the time to talk, sing, read and play with me — sometimes it’s the stuff that’s free that ends up being worth the most.
Grace Newsom is an assistant night editor. Contact her at [email protected].