Posted on by Ulrike S. Rettig

Gibberish or Language Learning?

Children playingWe are speaking German with Calvin, our three-year-old grandson. We don't need a "method." His brain is a sponge that soaks up whatever strikes him as fun. 

Telling him that "apple juice" is "AHP-fell-sahft" has him laughing out loud. He repeats the word a couple of times and looks at me to see if I'm laughing. I'm thrilled. I'm amazed at how good his pronunciation is.


Then we're playing trains. Calvin likes the word "Lo-ko-mo-TIH-veh," which I sneak in, as we make the train chug along.

Suddenly he laughs again. Then he lets loose a stream of "pretend German." It sounds like German, with its characteristic consonants and intonation, but what he's spouting is total nonsense.

I sure can't understand what he's saying. Later, when I think about this, it occurs to me that Calvin is recreating the sounds he hears when my husband and I are having a conversation in German.

He doesn't understand many of the words. But he has definitely picked up the melody and the rhythm, in short, the sounds of the German language and is mimicking them well.


In my mind, this clicks with something I noticed when Calvin was an eighteen-month-old toddler. At that age, he was already able to say a few words. These he used insistently when he wanted something.

But other times he just talked away - in pure gibberish. But this "gibberish" had the melody and the rhythm of American English. No question about that. He was talking in nonsense sentences. 

Some of his sentences clearly had the intonation of questions, others were statements, some where emphatic, others more tentative. He was reproducing conversational talk that he hears all the time at home.

In what he was saying, occasionally a word would pop up that I could identify as English. Within weeks, the number of individual words increased that I could understand. A few months later, the gibberish stopped and Calvin started talking in short noun-verb sentences.

As a toddler, he had picked up the melody and rhythm of English and was mimicking those perfectly.


And with that, I remember an experience of my own. Five years ago, when my husband and I had just arrived in Rome, we started watching a half-hour of TV every evening.

We were going to spend several months in Italy, and we were determined to learn Italian. During the morning, we worked with a tutor; in the afternoon, we walked the city; then, after a late dinner, we let an Italian soap opera or news program wash over us.

That's what the daily television experience felt like: The language just washed over us. We heard a fast stream of sounds and rhythms. Beautiful sounds.

But we barely caught a familiar word. The stream of Italian sounds was gibberish to us.

However, over time, this stream of sounds seemed to slow down. Here and there, we started to identify familiar words, then phrases. By the end of our stay in Rome, we could pretty well follow a story, for example, the story of the Italian TV series “Orgoglio” (Pride), which was running at that time.

I can well imagine the excitement Calvin feels as he gradually begins to master his languages. I've been there as an adult. My brain too went from hearing a stream of gibberish, to understanding words, and then to understanding their meaning.
I now watch an online soap opera in Italian called “Un posto al sole” (A place in the sun). And, I'm looking around for the next language to learn. I love these new beginnings.