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Important Thoughts on Babies and Hammers

September 24, 2013

Babies and hammers

Quotes have long been an important part of my life. Over the years I’ve collected hundreds of favorite quotes that somehow speak to me, and inspire me. At any given time, the wall above my desk is continuously whispering several quotes that remind me of ideas I want to embody more deeply, or provide a helpful perspective on challenges I’m currently facing.

I also pin up quotes from my kids, like this little message written (and joyfully punctuated) by my son when he was 4:

Daddy is! A very good! Daddy! OK!

Quotes, in fact, play a significant role in my work because I find that suitable quotes not only offer ongoing encouragement in the tiring day-to-day efforts of nurturing language development (as in 49 Inspiring Quotes for Parents Raising Bilingual Children), they can even serve as keen metaphors for the larger journey itself.

The other day I came across this compelling quote…

Look at a stone cutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred-and-first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it, but all that had gone before. —Jacob Riis

Jacob Riis, who was a social reformer in New York City over a hundred years ago, didn’t have bilingual children in mind when he wrote this—I expect he was speaking about the importance of persistent efforts when it comes to making changes in society. To me, though, I immediately saw a connection between the stone cutter and the parent of a bilingual child—and particularly, the parent of a new baby.

Normally, I would say that hammers and small children don’t mix. But think of it this way:

A parent nurturing a child’s minority language is much like that stone cutter hammering at his rock. The child produces no intelligible language for quite a while—no “cracks” are evident—and then suddenly “the rock splits” and the minority language becomes active…or not.

That’s the thing: Without that persistent hammering through the child’s first years of life—those daily efforts at creating meaningful exposure in the target language—a “clean split” probably won’t occur. Instead, the majority language will charge ahead when the child starts speaking and the minority language is left behind, where it grows more passive.

For new parents, that hammering must take place in full faith. Until you gain some personal experience with a first child, it’s natural to wonder if your efforts will actually pay off. But know this: they will. If you hammer away persistently enough—playful, joyful hammering—the “split” will occur naturally, inevitably. Your efforts through those first few years will lead to active communication in the minority language when the child begins to speak. But if those early efforts are insufficient…well, a rock won’t split in two if you hammer at it too lightly.

Metaphor for literacy, too

This quote from Jacob Riis is also an apt metaphor for fostering literacy in the minority language. In my view, the daily practice of reading aloud to a child, from birth, not only hammers at oral proficiency, it hammers at literacy development, too—it’s doubly productive. Reading and writing won’t really emerge until a year or more after the child is speaking, but all the efforts made in the years prior to that time—hundreds and hundreds of read aloud sessions—will pave the way for another “split” in the child’s ability to read and write in the minority language.

The simple fact is: The more hammering you do early on—especially through the quantity of speech directed at the child and the amount of reading aloud you pursue—the more likely you’ll foster positive “splits” in the minority tongue for both oral and written language.

True, those “splits” can certainly occur later on, but when the majority language moves relentlessly ahead of the minority language from an early age, activating a child’s passive ability can become a sizable challenge. If relatively “balanced” bilingualism is important to you—because, for one, you wish to communicate with your child in your mother tongue for the life of your relationship—then I suggest it’s far better to hammer hard from the start and split those stones early.

Are you a new parent? Also see Warning to New Parents Who Dream of Raising a Bilingual Child.

How about you? What are your thoughts on babies and hammers?

1 Olena September 24, 2013 at 9:15 pm

Adam, great observation! When my son did not want to talk after two years already, I really had concerns that bilingualism could be a reason. One wise friend told me, that I should not stop. And it really paid off! He started to speak in both languages in full sentences at the same time. It looked like a miracle, but I’m pretty sure it was a hammer and a rock effect.

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2 Adam September 25, 2013 at 8:57 am

Olena, this is an excellent example of pressing on despite doubt. If you had allowed these concerns to hinder your commitment to his bilingual development, the outcome could have been very different indeed. Good for you and your son!

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3 Anna March 1, 2014 at 6:40 am

Excellent blog today, Adam. Especially made me smile as my son learned to say ‘hammer’ in German this week—his minority language (big deal for us, English normally dominates)!

Every time he comes out with a German word I feel my efforts—or persistent hammering—are worth it.

Thank you for your inspiring and motivating blog—please keep it up! :-)

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4 Adam March 1, 2014 at 6:54 am

Anna, good for you, and for your son! Let’s both keep hammering away, day after day! :mrgreen:

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5 Ellen February 3, 2015 at 7:32 am

I really enjoyed reading the post by Tatyana. I saw that their target languages are Russian and Spanish.

I speak Spanish to our children and my husband speaks Russian to them. My Spanish is not very good. I only learned what little my dad remembered when I was little. My husband learned to speak Russian when he was older. His father could not teach him, because his family had been told he would transition to school better if they only spoke English all the time. His father said that it made him feel isolated to have them suddenly only speaking English to him all the time. I learned more Spanish and have really enjoyed learning the language alongside my children. My previous learning in the language allowed me to accelerate the language learning process for myself. Some of my children speak Spanish well and others understand well. Russian is finally starting to be more of an interest as my husband has become more involved. I had to explain to him how important it was for them to hear him pronounce the language. My pronounciation of the language is not always very good. I am so happy that we can work together to teach our children to speak Russian and Spanish. Since then we are also starting German and French. German from my great grandmother and French from my great aunt. I only learned a little before they passed. My youngest son, who is my most gifted language learner, has also taken on Chinese. He is doing fairly well. We are all learning from him. A Chinese woman from the library wants to help us learn. She heard we were trying to learn Chinese and offered to help us learn. What an amazing blessing. Because of going to story time at the library, we have seen the kids’ pride in speaking other languages and learning to grow. We are blessed in new ways every month, sometimes every week.

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6 Adam February 3, 2015 at 1:00 pm

Ellen, I enjoyed learning about you and your family. It sounds like you’re experiencing a rich and rewarding multilingual journey together. With your positive attitude, and proactive efforts, I expect you and your husband will continue to foster a lot of success over the years. I send best wishes from Japan!

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