Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Honey-Roo or Driving the Driver

Maria and I were reading a Winnie the Pooh book one day when she was about 22 months, and were talking about the characters. I pointed to Pooh and said

"Who's this?"
"And who's this?"
"And this?"
"Honey? Umm.. No dear that's Roo."

For several weeks, she adamantly insisted on called Roo "Honey". I guessed that Kanga had called Roo "honey" in one of our stories, and so that's what Maria heard.

I thought no more about the mystery until we were reading one of her favorite books – a collection of songs that had the words changed to be "Pooh" songs. This book was her favorite to 'read' as she fell asleep. It came complete with a "press the button" electronic keyboard that played that song, and she insisted that we sing along with it. (Surely there must be a hell somewhere where the manufacturers of these tinny, off-key singing books will be chained up and made to listen to their inane songs over and over and over again. But I digress.)

There, on the last page of the book was the answer to the Honey-Roo mystery. The song was "Where Oh Where Can My Honey Pot Be?" and there was a picture of Pooh, sitting disconsolately in a chair, missing his honey pot. "I've looked in the cupboard and under the stairs, oh where oh where can it be?" And behind Pooh is a picture of Roo, holding up a table cloth, and on the floor, under the table, is Pooh's honey pot!

I can just imagine a scene where we were reading this book and said "So, where is it?" and pointed in the direction of Roo and the honey pot. Maria, not knowing what a honey pot was, or maybe not knowing what we meant by "it", linked "honey" with the most interesting thing we were pointing toward: Roo. This is a common thing that children do - they will link a word with the most interesting plausible object (see "Nice Finger Mom") that someone is indicating.

So what was going on? A very simple and yet reportedly rare error in child word learning: a mismatch. Children, when they learn words, generally get within the ballpark for the meaning, even if they don't get the exact meaning. So, they may label a 'tomato' and 'apple' but they rarely call it a garden hose! But, every once in a while, a child simply gets the wrong word linked to the wrong object, and labels "Roo" "honey". Maria eventually learned Roo's name, but even now, close to a year later, she will sometimes slip and call him "Honey" again.

These errors can be mystifying. I suspect many go undetected, chalked up to a parent's or child's inability to make sense out of an interaction. Indeed, such was nearly the case for the only mismatch that I detected in Tommy's word learning. When Tommy was 2, his favorite 'game' to play was 'garbage truck'. He would pretend to drive the garbage truck, make brake sounds, stop the truck, climb out, pretend to dump the garbage into the truck, climb back in, and drive on to the next 'house'. This game could be played anywhere (beds, church pews, couches)- but one of his favorite things to do was to climb into our laps and pretend we were the seat and he was driving. One day, when Tommy climbed into my lap, he announced "I'm driving the driver!" "Where?" I asked. "Right here!" "No, where are you driving the driver?" "Here. I'm driving the driver." After several more go rounds, I gave up, figuring he couldn't understand 'where' questions yet.

Then, a week or so later, we were reading his favorite book: Garbage Trucks. On one page, it asks, "Would you like to see where the driver sits?" and I read this and asked Tommy - "where is the driver?" Tommy pointed to the steering wheel. Eureka! Mystery solved. When Tommy said "I'm driving the driver," he wasn't talking about a person or a location - he was saying that he was operating the steering wheel. Apparently, when we were pointing to the picture of the driver, the most interesting thing for Tommy was not the person but the steering wheel. Thus, another mismatch mystery solved.

As with malaprops, perhaps the most interesting thing is how rare this kind of error is. Tommy had one clear mismatch, and Maria has had one or two. One or two real mismatches out of the 500+ words they'd each learned by the time they were 2. Surely there were many more opportunities to get a meaning wrong, and they didn't. However children are going about the task of linking words to meaning, they are, in the end, remarkably good at it.

1 comment:

Amy @ Experience Imagination said...

My daughter likes to play "waitress" and take our orders with a crayon on a notepad. She came up to me one night and said she was the order (full conversation here, if you're interested). Needless to say, I was very confused and she was quite frustrated.