All toddlers have their own highly idiomatic and original way of speaking, and my son Magnus is no exception. From the very first time he said “dog” – his first word – we have eagerly watched every slow but sure step in the process of language acquisition. When he first began to learn the names of things, however mispronounced they were, it opened the door to many rewarding, if still frustrating exchanges. “Milky,” “Mama,” “Dadda,” “Miaow miaow,” “Car car,” “Bottle,” “Bathy,” “Beddy” – his vocabulary inevitably reflected his context and the daily needs and simple pleasures around which his life revolved. Being able to name things meant he could request them, just as we could more easily offer them and gain his enthusiasm for the thing.
It was curious to note how, without prompting, Magnus developed the common tendency of saying the name of each thing twice in a row or adding an “ie / y” ending to words, particularly if the word only had one syllable. It took until he was perhaps eighteen months old before he really began to string two different words together to link nouns with verbs, for example, or to attach adjectives: “Mama gone,” “Dadda running shoes,” “Big building,” “Yummy dinner,” – as modest as this progress might seem, having doing the hard slog with a complete linguistic newbie, this conceptual leap was extraordinary to behold and it is nigh impossible to convey the excitement we felt at his expanding ability to interact with us and the world.
In many ways the advancement of his language has moved in close relation to his increasing mobility and dexterity. As one might expect, the greater his ability to negotiate and navigate the world, the greater his sense of ownership and mastery over it, the greater his capacity to handle, manipulate, reach and examine objects, so his vocabulary has grown. In recent weeks, being taller and longer legged and able to step up whole stairs without leaning on the walls or holding the bannister, being able to run with real speed and accuracy in his strides, his language has taken even greater leaps forward. It was perhaps only four or five months ago, in the weeks before his second birthday, that he began to construct entire sentences which again opened a whole new level of communication. “Where is it?” “What are we doing?” “Where mama gone?” “Going to beachie?” “Many big buildings down the city,” (he always says “down the city”). The satisfaction from these exchanges seems almost exponentially greater than that which came before, because it meant that at last I could really explain things to him. Now I can say such things as, “Today dadda has to go to work, so Granny-ma is coming over after your sleep and she will take you to see the boys ,” and he will understand me. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he likes what I tell him! He hates it when I go to work, for example, which is funny considering I feel exactly the same way about it. Indeed, his sense of separation anxiety seemed to increase with his ability to communicate his dissatisfaction.
One of his favourite expressions is “tunnel dark”, which, as you might imagine, is pretty contextual. Whenever we go through a tunnel in the car; whenever he sees one, either in life or on television; when he looks under the coffee table or couch; when he crawls under pillows or beneath the bedsheets, and whenever we are in the bath and my legs are arched so that a sort of cove has formed in the dark, bath-sloshed space beneath, he says “Tunnel dark.”
In many ways these two seemingly simple words are both a story and a poem. For him the words are rich in connotations and narrative elements. From the nature of his play and the things he says in relation to “tunnel dark”, it is clear that he imagines being afraid; that he feels the presence of monsters (or “mosters”, as he says); that he considers being lost, or something else being lost, and he often talks a lot about “hiding”. Most of these ideas are derived from play we have engaged in, though his mother and I were initially baffled as to where he got the idea of monsters, as we had deliberately avoided creating any unnecessary fears in him by mentioning such things. Yet, of course, he spends time with others and watches some television, though most of the shows contain few scary elements. Either way, “Tunnel Dark” is the most evocative window into his vivid imagination and it feels like a privilege to witness this kind of nascent, raw escapism.