My toddler and Chewbacca, a comparison

26 Jul

140517-news-mcconaughey-starwarsWe are all Matthew McConaughey watching the Star Wars trailer.

Of the innumerable utterances of my two-year-old, I can decode about 70 to 80 percent. My husband is close behind that, and other folks tend to fall into the 30 to 50 percent range in translation accuracy.

Sometimes I flatter myself that my knack at understanding Little L’s toddlerspeak dialect is thanks to an unbreakable parent-child bond. But the fact is, it’s more a matter of quantity than quality: I am his primary caretaker. I am there every time he discovers a new word or constructs a new phrase. I have the context of remembering (if fuzzily) how he has spent virtually every waking minute and how he and his language have evolved, word by word.

* * *

When I saw the trailer for the new Star Wars movie, what really got my Matthew McConaughey tears pumping was the final shot:

anigif_enhanced-9098-1429208948-4Image from here.

Part of it was my nostalgia and affection for the characters and their relationship and the entire Star Wars universe. And part of it was the thought, “Whoa! My linguistic relationship with my toddler is like Han and Chewie’s relationship!”

tumblr_looetiRWvW1qe8di7o1_r1_500Not unlike this revelation in Community.

The initial connection I made was that Han must have learned to speak Chewbacca’s language simply because they spent a lot of time together, much like L and I do. They hang out on the Millennium Falcon and roam the galaxy; L and I hang out in our apartment and roam the parks and bus routes of our city.

It seemed unusual, though, that a scoundrel like Han Solo managed to communicate so fluently in another tongue. He just never struck me as a polyglot, you know?

Turns out, according to (natch) Wookieepedia, “It was not uncommon for beings to speak at least two languages in addition to their native tongue, particularly among those involved in space-faring occupations and those who had attended military or educational academies.”

So perhaps the toddler/Chewie analogy wouldn’t work, I thought. Darn, no nerd points for me! But then I read further in Wookieepedia, reaching the entry about Shyriiwook, the language of the Wookiees. Here’s the peculiar thing about Shyriiwook:

“The unique shape of the Wookiee throat made Shyriiwook a very difficult, even impossible language to speak for most non-Wookiees. … It was also incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for most Wookiees to learn to speak Basic [English]. As a result, most inter-species communication involving Wookiees had to be carried out in a bilingual format, usually with the Wookiee speaking Shyriiwook and the other party speaking Basic.”

Now here’s an analogy I could work with–because sometimes it does feel like I’m talking to my toddler bilingually. When he speaks his own little version of English, I can (usually) understand him, but I don’t exactly replicate what he said–either because it was too garbled for me to catch or because I prefer to model standard grown-up English (even though I adore how he says “Yegos” instead of “Legos”). So, much like Han and Chewie speaking Basic and Shyriiwook, Little L and I speak grown-up and toddlerspeak, and we manage just fine.* Of course, unlike Chewbacca, L has the vocal chords to eventually be able to speak grown-up. Though if he grew up to speak Shyriiwook I would not be disappointed.

I realize my linguistic Star Wars parallel is a stretch. Maybe I just really enjoy attempting to liken Star Wars to my life, OK? (It was fun dressing my kid as an ewok.) But there is also the obvious toddler–Wookiee analogy: they both have a short temper. L’s second birthday has ushered in a new affinity for tantrums, and just as with a Wookiee, it’s often wise to let them win if you want to keep your arm sockets and sanity intact.

* * *

Language acquisition is hands-down my favorite part about being a parent so far. Nothing has made my heart swell with joy and exhilaration and pride and love and awe quite as much as hearing my two-year-old fashion complex concepts into coherent strings of words. “I play in room.” “Don’t hit; hitting’s bad.” “Cookies! I eat it?” “I wuv you, Daddy.” “Mama. Read stories? Sit next to me?”

Plenty of times, Little L is simply parroting what my husband and I say or what he hears when we’re out and about (he cheerfully echoes “Stop Re-quest-ed!” on the bus). But much of his speech is carefully self-constructed. And it’s not that my kid is some Baby Einstein; delightful TED talks like this and this and books like this testify of the hidden grammatical and statistical genius of all babies. Young children are an absolute marvel.

Day-to-day, minute-to-minute child care is often mundane, but it is a privilege to be a stay-at-home/work-from-home parent, not only for the relative financial stability that implies but also for the opportunity to watch this tiny being observe and make sense of the world–the chance to serve as copilot for this tiny being during his first few years of roaming the galaxy.


* Sometimes I wonder if Little L thinks I’m the one who’s the novice at this whole language thing. One day he asked for a “paci” and I said sorry, he couldn’t have it for now. He frowned, made firm eye contact, and sounded it out slowly: “Pac-i-fi-er.” As if the only possible explanation for me denying his request was that I am too dimwitted to understand him. (You do what I tell you. Capisce, Mom?) Now I am imagining a series of books written for toddlers like How to Deal with Your Slow Parent, filled with advice just as reassuring and inane as any parenting book. Get on that!


2 Responses to “My toddler and Chewbacca, a comparison”

  1. Karen July 26, 2015 at 2:58 pm #

    Great, great! I learned AND laughed.

  2. Katie P. July 26, 2015 at 4:39 pm #

    Every time I read something you’ve written, I’m more sad your time in Philly wasn’t longer! You are awesome, Star Wars is the best, and Lars’s speaking sounds totally adorable.

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