“Second Guessing the Message” by Gladys Hunt

In the tenth of our previously-unpublished posts by Gladys Hunt, she begins a series on the value of language by reflecting on nonverbal communication.

Years ago when we visited France for the first time, someone gave us tickets to see Marcel Marceau, the world-famous mime.  It was a delight!  Partly because we didn’t have to struggle with the language to get his message, and mostly because he was so good!  We got the heart of the stories he told by his bodily expressions. In fact, it was an emotional evening.

It’s amazing what you can communicate without words.  I remember one time my husband came into a room where I sat with an elderly Italian woman who couldn’t speak a word of English and, knowing I couldn’t speak more than a word of Italian, he was astonished to find me in tears.   I quickly explained, “She is telling me about her husband’s death.”  That confused him more than ever. “And you could understand?” he queried.  Yes, somehow I did. I think I got it right, I think… 

Yet for all of the adventure of guessing and interpreting, I want to spend the next few blogs talking about the incredible gift of language and its responsibilities.  Words are to be cherished.  So many nuances of meaning come through language—both to build and to tear down lives.  Language is a two-way street.  We can ask questions to clarify; we can get more information as well as give it. I think, for example, that my Italian friend’s husband had been killed in World War II, but I am not certain of the circumstances.  How long had they been married?  How had they met?  I only know part of her story, and I cannot really know her pain unless I know more of it. 

A few blogs ago I wrote about children books illustrator David Small and his wordless cartoon drawings about growing up in a dysfunctional family. (The book is called Stitches.)  His drawings show his mother’s angry face, slamming cupboards doors, giving him disapproving looks.  She didn’t reveal herself with language.  She left him confused, and did untold damage to his life. Language is a responsibility.  We have to learn how to use it to build other people. 

I love words and what they do when they are well-crafted in sentences that make you think and feel and understand.  I like to talk about what words do in stories to open up a child’s imagination and widen his world. The right word in the right place!  Remember Mark Twain’s quip that the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. 

But I also want to alert you to ways you influence your child’s future by your own use of language in family life.

At RedeemedReader, we’ve noticed that one way to use wordless picture books is as a tool to facilitate a young child’s language skills–let her tell the story.  For more, see “Some Words about Wordless Books.”  Henry Cole, like David Small, is a master of nonverbal communication through pictures.  His Unspoken: a Story from the Underground Railroad is a great way to foster conversation and story-telling skills for older kids.

Gladys Hunt wrote these blog posts for Tumblon.com, a web app that helped parents understand children’s development. Graham Scharf, one of the co-founders of Tumblon, has granted permission for these posts to be published here to achieve Gladys’s aim: for children and their parents to explore and enjoy great books together.

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Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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