My wife and I skyped our grandchildren in Colorado Sunday and I had a stunning conversation with my seven-year-old granddaughter, Laurel.
I started with a joke I hoped would not go over her head. I told her that we had a squirrel in our attic. She asked what it was doing there. I said that it was looking for me because I’m nuts and squirrels love nuts. I was right—she didn’t laugh. Her comment was, “They’re just homophones.”
Amazingly, she was right: the adjective nuts and the plural of nut are just that, homophones, two different words that sound alike much like piece and peace or sow and sew. I was impressed first by the fact that this concept, which I taught to college students for 35 years, is being taught in a Boulder, Colorado elementary school. But I was more impressed that an seven-year-old girl could not only remember the concept, but could use it to identify homophonic pairs from the speech zipping past her ears.
Deeply impressed by this mental feat and her willingness to sit still and converse with me, I boldly asked what else she was doing in school. She told me that her class was writing poems. Again, not bad for second grade. She even agreed to recite one that she remembered: “I’m not happy today because I did not play.”
I told her how much her verse impressed me, how much I loved poetry, and offered her what I considered a grandfatherly suggestive one of my own: “My thinking is muddy because I did not study.” I’m sure now its suggestiveness was so obvious as to offend her. She told me that it sounded like a haiku! She wasn’t sure, though, because she did not have time to count the syllables. (Haiku generally contain 17 syllables in Japanese, though English haiku is usually shorter.)
Was I accidentally telling the truth all those times I claimed that my grandchildren are smarter than average? I think it is true that children are growing up in a culturally richer environment than my generation grew up in. The public school she attends is obviously an excellent one. But now I’m thinking: could there be a linguistic gene? How else could I hold a conversation with a seven-year-old in MY highly specialized language?