Learning to Speak Twice

woman talking on the phone with a cat

woman talking on the phone with a cat

If you explain something one time and it’s not understood, you have to explain it the second time differently. If you’ve explained it one hundred times and not been understood, maybe you are explaining it to the wrong people.

Or maybe you are answering the wrong question.

Maybe you haven’t explained it to the right people.

You know children learn to speak twice. It can be kind of upsetting for their parents.

Their children suddenly develop language—sometimes as early as twelve months, more typically around eighteen—and at that time they’ll demonstrate language skills that far exceed what is typical for that age. But only for about a week.

It’s really adorable, not to mention fascinating and exciting, to see a very small child look up to you and ask where the milk is. Especially when up until that time they’ve made nothing but non-word sounds.

Now, I don’t know if it’s because someone tells these children that this is impossible; it’s true their comprehension of what they themselves say during this period might be lacking in some sense; still often the things they say are tied to the situation; what’s spoken goes beyond repetition, and sometimes includes full sentences, which means two or three words at that age — a language skill they’re not expected to develop for possibly a solid year.

But they’ll chat with you as if it’s the most normal thing in the world, with a little bit of a puzzled look on their face, maybe thinking “You find this a big deal for some reason?” But only for a couple of days. And then they will not speak. And afterwards is about when what people call the Terrible Twos starts to hit. They are pissed. The children, I mean.

A lot of them won’t even engage in verbal games, or say nonsense syllables, for months after this experience. Inviting them to spek makes them mad. They seem angry– angry with language.

Not every kid has this little burst of language ability, but it’s pretty common. And in another few months, they usually start to start talking again. But their language is very different, the second time. Much closer to what everyone says is developmentally appropriate, or what is developmentally appropriate at that time: single words (mama, no, milk), and much much more emotional.

So the language that you hear from a kid during one of these early explosions, it’s chill. It’s like talking about the weather. You feel a little bit like you are watching someone make cupcakes with prosthetic arms: awkward, maybe even a little painful, but miraculous. They’ll name their friends, or pets, and just comment on what they do (Sing song. Kitty sit.) and look at you, as if to say What do you think of that? Very unemotional, like a game. And a lot of single words and naming things. Some situationally appropriate repetition of multi-word phrases they’ve heard, like That’s not good.

That’s something, dropping your keys and hearing this little alien voice for the first time, saying, That’s not good. It sounds like a sound bite. I guess that’s what psychologists call a ’learned behavior,’ right? Meaning a behavior, that you learn.

It’s appropriateness; that’s what I would call it. I’ve figured out that the appropriate thing to do when something like this happens based on my observations of others is to say “That’s not good.” What do you think?


Some of these comments can get kind of colorful, which some parents can find embarrassing, but don’t worry: it’s really brief. We’re talking about a total of one printed page of words; that’s the most you’re getting out of one of these explosions.

But why twice though? What happens in between? Why do we have to do it a second time? Why isn’t language just a game? Why isn’t language just appropriate? Why isn’t it just the thing that we do, when someone else does something else—like pat-a-cake, but with air that we push through our throats?

I think in that couple of months of frustration, the whole brain is rewired: for categorization. And afterwards, with language, I’m not just giving an appropriate response at an appropriate time, I’m not just doing the thing that you do because that’s what you do; I not just wanting to be more like you because we all love each other like crazy*— —but now I have to do this *other* thing; now when I look at stuff, I have to figure out what it is; I decide—

I decide.

All of a sudden we’re making decisions. This is a this, this is a that, which come with this is good, and this is bad. Not what we had before the period of frustration: this is uncomfortable, or this is what I want. Now we’ve ‘advanced’: to this is good, and this is bad.

And that is hard—hard hard hard hard hard hard (meaning extremely hard) work, for that little tiny person, because it is confusing to them that there should be anything bad. There didn’t used to be! Everything was just the way it was supposed to be at all times, although sometimes you were uncomfortable, although sometimes you wanted things. But now all of a sudden there is good and there is bad; there is categorization and there is decision and there is will.

I don’t like it: another way of saying this is bad.

Not ‘Nah, I-don’t-like-it-I’m-not-going-to-eat-it’ I don’t like it; ‘I-DON’T-LIKE-IT-IT-SHOULD-NOT-EXIST‘ I don’t like it. Earlier experience with a world in which everything was as it should be taught me well that there should not be things that are not good. Now suddenly here are such things, and I cannot make them go away. I can’t restore the perfect world I lived in up until now. This is incredibly confusing and upsetting. Why should there be a thing that I don’t like, when I don’t like it? It wasn’t like this before. What happened? Could it even be somehow my fault? Or your’s, teacher-lady?

Children, I am very sad to say to you all that this is logic’s price! But maybe we can re-write logic so that it’s not.

*isn’t what do you do when you love somebody? want to be like them?

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