I noticed that he was staring at my mouth with studied fascination – and then he suddenly reached out and took my face in his little hands, pulled me around toward him and exclaimed with loud revelation, “You’ve got Murray on your face!”
What!? Who is on my face?! This startling proclamation was made at me by a four year old sitting next to me in his speech therapy session. His surprising words taught me something powerful about the role of excitement and joy, in new learning.
To fill you in, ‘Murray’ is the red Wiggle of The Wiggles fame. (Yes, I mean THE Wiggles!). My small friend, James, adorable, fun and quirky, was struggling to acquire the vocabulary for colours. He just couldn’t remember the names of the colours. If we worked on these tiresome, troublous names, he would sigh and look at me pleadingly for assistance. A clever boy. Very clever. But with a problem with language expression that made it hard for him to lock-away new vocabulary in the way we would expect at age four. And colour names were just plain hard for him!
A goal that I had for James was to have him stay in the task with me long enough to make just a few more supported repetitions as we stretched toward the elusive breakthrough. I had been casting and weaving as many of my ‘have fun’ spells and tricks as I could. But then, with this amazed comment, James showed me, bless his beating-in-awe little heart, that he had acquired the ability to give a name to redness by associating it with Murray.
Ahh… Murray! Murray the most magical, musical, motivational, of heroes. Murray the dispenser of four-year-old fun, excitement and joy. Murray the eliciter of adrenaline and a cocktail of pleasure-giving neurotransmitters with the power to underpin new learning. Murray bringing music. Murray bringing movement. Murray in the spotlight everywhere a small person might go. Murray, Murray, Murray! Together with his equally-esteemed Wiggle colleagues, Murray had everything that I wasn’t quite managing to pull off. The wonderful Wiggles. Source of his fountains. Source of his joy! He just LOVED the Wiggles…and this was the magic that cracked the vocabulary problem!
But as a result of this, James didn’t call yellow, ‘yellow’- he called it ‘Greg’ – so you might eat a greg banana! And blue was called ‘Anthony’ – ahhh the wide expanse of the anthony sky; and purple was ‘Geoff’ – like… well… a bunch of juicy geoff grapes. And yes, red… was called ‘Murray’. And I… had Murray on my face. My lipstick. (Actually quite carefully applied! Murray wasn’t really ALL over my face).
When concepts are hard to learn, as color names were for James, association with something highly pleasurable can power the step forward. No one taught James the association between the colours and The Wiggles – but the songsters were so exciting to James that they provided the pleasure and the motivation to WANT and NEED to refer to colour. And thereby they provided the energy to the quantum leap that was necessary to master this vocabulary.
OK… so the vocabulary was not strictly correct. Actually, it was not correct at all. But the breakthrough was that James now had a sense of ‘colourness’. And a new knowledge that colour itself can have its own name. So… a ball has a name – ‘ball’. And its colour also has a name, which is not ‘ball’, but which is, say, ‘red’ – as in ‘red ball’. And therefore he learned that ‘colourness’ is a concept that can co-exist with the names of things. For James, it was a short step from here to being able to learn the correct colour labels. And once red, yellow, purple and blue were mastered, the others were easy too.
Isn’t it interesting how language works? It is so complex and beautiful. We hardly stop to think about it. It is agreed in our language-communities that the words we use are symbols with particular and specific meanings. For the most part this is an unspoken (uh oh…pun) agreement and just ‘is’. But when we have experience that sits outside of these expectations we sense how complex language is; and how magnificently fluid are the processes by which we can convey meaning.
Meanings, like the natural dune-art of the desert, do shift, change & drift however – and sometimes even quite dramatically! And it is good that this is so: for, love as I do, the astounding wordcraft of William Shakespeare, if meanings & conventions had never altered, T.S. Eliot would never have brought us the wonder of his Wasteland, and then… we would not have wended a way from there through to the wonderful Wiggles!
I have found that the shifts and drifts of early vocabulary development are as inspiring as those bards, though for different reasons. They inspire my amazement of the process of learning language; they inspire my affection toward the little learner as he road-tests his new word-wheels; and they very often simply inspire a hearty laugh and shared moment of esteem-building and love-building delight with a little person and his family!
Thank you James. I still put Murray on my face. And I often think of you as I do. 🙂
PS: Note to parents: write these quirky episodes down as they happen – you don’t ever want to forget them – they’ll be entertaining your grandchildren in years to come.